You can take the word “Fiction” printed on the cover of Vic Chesnutt’s latest and best release, The Salesman and Bernadette, with a grain of salt. The suicidal drunk “chasing rum with rum” in “Square Room” might not technically be Vic, but the character and author share a propensity for existential benders; legend has it that after the final gig of the tour for his last (and only) major-label release, About to Choke, Chesnutt abandoned his band in Wisconsin and took the tour van on a soul-searching quest, ending up in a Florida hotel room that one could assume was square and filled with an empty bottle or two. But for a modest Southerner who writes more like a storyteller than a songwriter, the fiction designation has some utility, particularly in providing the necessary emotional distance for Chesnutt to be more personal than ever. The end result is a song cycle that oscillates between jaunty and heart-wrenching at the drop of a phrase. Chesnutt hands out parts like a playwright (in the slow waltz “Woodrow Wilson,” for example, Emmylou Harris plays Bernadette to Chesnutt’s salesmen), and the country-soul big band Lambchop serves as the singer’s sharp-witted chorus, conjuring a literary, eclectically Southern brand of swing in the process. “Arthur Murray” is a stinging barroom shuffle (“you laugh when I tell you you’re gorgeous”); the rueful Nashville downstroke “Duty Free” could sit proudly alongside any of George Jones’ closing-time anthems. More than 10 years into a career built on a potential he plays down, Chesnutt has finally found it in himself to be ambitious.—Brett Anderson

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