Soul Pretender

Cody ChesnuTT’s new album mines 40 years of R & B history. But does it add up to anything?

Cody ChesnuTT
ChesnuTT: a funk omnibus

In the era of the Internet download and the iPod, in which every listener has the potential to become his own producer and mixer and every CD is but so much “text” to cut and paste, it may be hard to recall that the pop album was once a radical, liberating idea. The Beatles and Brian Wilson, having mastered the three-minute single, soon found themselves hemmed in by it—and envious of those making jazz and folk LPs conceived to be taken in as a whole, not purchased for the three hits on Side 1 that quickly grew scratched and pitted from repeated after-school needle plopping. An album could establish and sustain a mood. An album could explore—lyrically or stylistically—a theme. An album could risk and digress, counting on a listener to play it through again and again, to contemplate it, to get it, eventually. Size mattered.

It still does to Cody ChesnuTT, file-sharing be damned. ChesnuTT’s debut album, spread across two CDs, is nearly 100 minutes long, or 10 minutes longer than the Beatles’ White Album, to which it has been breathlessly likened by Rolling Stone. The album contains 36 songs and sketches for songs, and it makes sense only as the sum of its parts.

ChesnuTT, who is 33, grew up in Atlanta, where in his early 20s he was known as Antonious Thomas and was trying to make a go of it as a standard-issue, hit-single-seeking R & B singer. He moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, deciding he was more into rock than southern soul, and founded a band, the Crosswalk, which was eventually signed by Hollywood Records. But the label didn’t like the album the Crosswalk cut and dropped the band. Then the band abandoned ChesnuTT. Then ChesnuTT retreated to the bedroom in the apartment he shared with his cousin and a friend of theirs and Did It Himself—with an organ, an electric keyboard, a guitar, a bass, a drum machine, one microphone, a four-track recorder, and only a pair of headphones to monitor what he was making, so as not to wake up his roomies as he worked through the night. (The album does feature one female guest vocal and one guest sax performance.) ChesnuTT not only wrote, played, and produced The Headphone Masterpiece but has now released it on his own label, Ready Set Go!

There’s never been anything quite like it, really. Which isn’t to say it’s a masterpiece or even a very good album. What it offers is a fascinating voyage—into ChesnuTT’s eccentrically self-conscious musical mind and through nearly 40 years of pop R & B, our after-dark national anthems. That is, The Headphone Masterpiece is best approached as an example of conceptual art in recorded form: an “album.” It’s something worth immersing yourself in and pondering, exactly once.

ChesnuTT suggests his recording be listened to through headphones, and he’s right. From the start, in a half-minute ballad fragment called “Magic Is a Mortal Mind,” he mindfully uses just the slightest mike hiss and tape crackle to reveal his lo-fi working conditions. It’s a sly way of upending 30 or so years of album listeners’ expectations about the sound quality that headphones afford. But more important, ChesnuTT establishes a casual intimacy—from his headphones to yours, no sound studio required—that’s crucial to the recording, an atmosphere he reinforces along the way with unedited giggles, sound checks, whispered asides, and, during one X-rated midtempo funk groove called “Family on Blast,” an attempt to get his cousin off the phone. Similarly, his playing and singing are spare, informal, even rudimentary. He’s after something essential: What is it about funky, soulful pop rock? And why does it continue to have such a grip on the innermost American Self?

To be someone of a certain age and to listen attentively to The Headphone Masterpiece all the way through for the first time—as I did, beginning to end, headphones on, lights out, late one night in bed—is to experience that flood of the heightened half-remembered we call Proustian. Stevie Wonder, Al Green, the early Rolling Stones, the “Philadelphia sound” of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the Bar-Kays and the Commodores, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Todd Rundgren’s psychedelia-infused blue-eyed soul, D’Angelo and other contemporary R & B, even touches and colorings of reggae and hip-hop—all this and more are summoned, appropriated, mimicked, parodied, or toyed with in the course of the album. And it’s strangely affecting: To hear 40-odd years of variations on R & B filtered through one sensibility in such a purposefully unpolished way is to warmly recognize what you might say is etched into the hard drive of each of us. Whether it’s Marvin Gaye or Maxwell, here is the music that is always and only about love and desire, loss and longing—and that’s why it so readily summons a particular time when it reaches us unbidden from the radio of a passing car. This music, after all, is to America since the 1960s what church bells were to medieval villages, marking time in its passing (the sound of that summer, that school year, that romance) and ushering us into a realm somehow more ideal (if only for being interracial). It is soulful.

But to listen to The Headphone Masterpiece a second or third time is to sense nothing but the inability to recapture the feelings you had the first time through. Why? I think Cody ChesnuTT failed to understand that pop music is essentially an art of novelty, of newness. It is the sound of youthful becoming, of possibility, of what’s next. To get that across, you have to somehow confect a sound that strikes a listener as something he or she has never quite heard before. That’s the sound whose liberating newness will deeply impress itself upon a psyche and, perhaps, two or three or 20 years from now, when heard again in passing, summon the time when it made its first impression. There is no such sound anywhere on The Headphone Masterpiece.

At the very heart of the most remarkable book of cultural criticism ever written about rock, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, there is a chapter on Sly Stone, whom ChesnuTT, with his floppy hat and bell-bottoms and guitar-funk riffs, would seem to be emulating. “In the manner of the very greatest rock ’n’ roll,” Marcus writes, “Sly and the Family Stone made music no one had ever heard before.” Marcus goes on to say that there was an “enormous freedom to the band’s sound” and that this freedom, in turn, freed not only those who listened and danced to it but soon enough pop music itself, as Motown and others absorbed Stone’s aesthetic, pushed pop forward, created music still newer. ChesnuTT’s freedom was to make his own album. That’s a freedom for sure, but it is not the ultimate one that the tiring indie movement continues to cling to so tightly. Returning to The Headphone Masterpiece, you can hear that all too clearly.