A lot of very good song lyrics don't work at all as poetry on the page, but Vic Chesnutt is one of the few pop songwriters whose lyrics work better on the page than they do in a song. Printed on the inside of the fold-out CD package for his latest album, "The Salesman & Bernadette," Chesnutt's lyrics are impressive -- full of elliptical leaps of association, sardonic ironies and smart puns. But when the Georgian guitarist sings his words, the literary devices destroy pop's most precious quality -- the illusion that the singer is conversing with us informally.
Chesnutt crawled out of the indie-rock ghetto in 1996, thanks to his major-label debut, "About to Choke," and the celebrity-crowded tribute album, "Sweet Relief II." He emerged as a Dixie-fried Robyn Hitchcock, a singer-songwriter of childlike surrealism. Hitchcock, though, can write fresh melodies and actually sing them, while Chesnutt's slow-motion tunes are derivative and his vocals comprise mostly wheezes and mumbles.
If ever there were a case to be made for Chesnutt, it would be "The Salesman & Bernadette," his most accessible album yet, thanks to the shimmering, sympathetic playing of Lambchop, Nashville's 13-piece folk-rock big band. But the music isn't strong enough, and the lyrics are too cryptic to carry the load alone. When Chesnutt sings on "Bernadette & Her Crowd" that "she gets much acclamation for such a self-ordained Faustian; Bernadette doesn't like doubters, she wants to fight in the coliseum," the preciousness of the writing spoils the immediacy of the musical moment.
Appearing Monday at IOTA with Shivaree. To hear a free Sound Bite from Vic Chesnutt, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8124. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)