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Cody ChesnuTT, ‘Landing on a Hundred’ (Vibration Vineyard)

cody chesnutt
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: October 30, 2012
Label: Vibration Vineyard

Two years ago, Cody ChesnuTT reappeared like a wandering soul once feared lost to the winds of time. Nearly a decade had passed since the emergence of his debut album, The Headphone Masterpiece, a two-disc, two-hour morass of funky rock’n’blues that evoked Shuggie Otis and Jimi Hendrix in its horny impudence. But his 2010 comeback EP, Black Skin, No Value, found him indulging his newfound role as a social activist. His beard, once sculpted, had since grown thick and burly, and now covered the lower half of his face; he wore a military-style helmet, as if heading into some battle that only he could envision.

Two songs from that EP reoccur on the new, full-length Landing on a Hundred. The first, “Everybody’s Brother,” tells the story of a swindler and drug addict who now teaches Sunday school; some listeners may be forgiven for mistaking it as an autobiographical tale, assuming the guy who “used to smoke crack back in the day” is ChesnuTT himself. (It’s actually inspired by an uncle.) As for “Where Is All the Money Going,” it’s an open-ended question aimed at the world’s gangsters and hustlers: He doesn’t indict them, but simply points out, “Some of your boys didn’t make it off the corner / And some didn’t make it off the triple scale.”

This reformed soul warrior is the same man who once commanded ladies to “Serve This Royalty,” and who trumpeted, “I can make any woman mine because I look good in leather / I can rock her body so good it blows her mind because I know how to fuck her better.” In 2002, he gathered plaudits from critics and wooed tastemakers like the Roots, who transformed his boastful track “The Seed” into “The Seed 2.0,” a modest hit. He made The Headphone Masterpiece by himself, playing all the instruments — most tracks focus on his voice, his chicken-scratch guitar, and his drum kit. It was the first lo-fi soul album of the new millennium, a worthy inheritor to the tradition of Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Going On; its audible tape hiss enveloped songs like “My Women, My Guitars” like a bootlegged version of Prince’s The Black Album.

Now, he presents us with the same quandary that we’ve encountered with Prince, another explosive talent whose devotion to God eventually tamed his wilder instincts. Do we want Jehovah’s Witness Prince, or do we want the Prince who dressed his girl groups in lingerie and sang that his older sister taught him about sex? Do we want the Cody ChesnuTT who made pronouncements like, “I got a big fat dick and that’s all you’re gonna get?” Or do we want the new version who’s apparently been saved and now professes, “I was a stranger in a foreign land until I met thee”?

Those who consider The Headphone Masterpiece a fount of gloriously raunchy perfection will never accept this chastened holy roller. Landing on a Hundred favors gospel-like flourishes and symphonic soul; a full-on choir (and a full band) edge his songs into neo-soul spiritualism. It’s a well-produced sound, but it holds no surprises — other than the fact that he’s doing it at all.

Retromania has become a crutch for too many artists, a self-congratulatory way to assert their alleged aesthetic realness over the synthetic sexual mendacities of contemporary pop and R&B. But ChesnuTT’s vision snaps into focus on “Don’t Follow Me,” a harrowing admission of guilt for past sins, real and perceived. There are no jaw-dropping revelations, but his voice shakes as he sings, “You can follow the times / Follow a flash / Even follow a spark that would turn timber into ash… But whatever you do, don’t follow me / ‘Cause I might steer you wrong.” His fear that his son might commit the same youthful mistakes he once made is palpable, and he makes us feel it; the dread conjured by Alvin Giles’ Rhodes-like keyboard and Steve Fryson’s emphatic drumming recalls Isaac Hayes’ “Going in Circles,” and underscores that sadness and regret.

Suddenly, Landing on a Hundred makes sense: The triumphant redemption of songs like “Love Is More Than a Wedding Day,” wherein ChesnuTT enthusiastically doles out matrimonial advice amid the cheery sway of ’60s Motown-inspired swing, becomes that much sweeter. We understand why he tells “church boys, school boys, dope boys” to respect their mamas, mocks our culture’s narcissistic delusions on “What Cool (Will We Think of Next),” and claims on “Chips Down (In No Landfill)” that he hocked his television and unplugged from the computer “so I could heal.” And when “Don’t Wanna Go the Other Way” rekindles the nervous plaints of “Don’t Follow Me” as he delivers his best Marvin Gaye impression, wailing “I’m trying to hold onto my faith,” he reminds us why he’s embraced this new life of God and family. He has too much to lose if he doesn’t.

You don’t have to know Cody ChesnuTT’s back story to appreciate all this — the journey is right there in the lyrics. A deceptively pretty voice with grainy tones that he once used to soft-sell those old “royal” provocations now helps him find enlightenment. He’s a changed man, and his complicated humanity has only deepened his art. As for those of us who prefer the old, nasty Cody, well, too bad — he ain’t going back. Give this new version a chance.