DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Cody ChesnuTT is a singer-songwriter who made a splash in 2002 with his debut collection "The Headphone Masterpiece." He hasn't released another full-length album since then.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says that ChesnuTT's new album, "Landing on a Hundred," mixes a variety of styles with an emphasis on spirituality in the lyrics.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIL I MET THEE")
CODY CHESTNUTT: (Singing) Do, do, do, do. Do, do, do, do, yeah, honey. Do, do, do, do. Do, do, do, do. I was a dead man, I was asleep. I was a stranger in a foreign land til I met thee.
KEN TUCKER: Cody ChesnuTT is the best sort of egomaniac. He places himself at the center of his musical universe; he contains that universe within him. On his new album, "Landing on a Hundred," he sings one song in the voice of the entire continent of Africa. When he writes a tune called "That's Still Mama," his mother is given to reflecting upon her son - that is, her divine little Cody, whom he refers to as school boy and church boy. He composes a song titled "Don't Follow Me," as though thousands were clamoring to become his disciples. And sometimes he sings in the voice of a different character: a sinner redeemed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T FOLLOW ME")
CHESTNUTT: (Singing) I used to smoke crack back in the day. I used to gamble with money and lose. I used to dog the nice ladies, used to swindle friends. But now I'm teaching kids in Sunday school and I'm not turning back. No turning back. No turning back. No turning back to good ol' times. No turning back. No one could sell a lie...
TUCKER: ChesnuTT wants you to know that he's never smoked crack, as the man in that song says he did, but the songwriter has gotten inside the head of someone driven to craven behavior and has found a way out through good deeds and a strong spiritual life. Musically, ChesnuTT takes familiar sounds from classic soul and R&B.
He phrases and croons in a manner that can remind you of a less-superhuman Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield. And ChesnuTT has a gift for making clichés ring with a fresh clarity, as when he tells you that love and commitment are more than just the trappings of romance such as a wedding day.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ON A WEDDING DAY")
CHESTNUTT: (singing) It's more than a checkbook, yes. And it's more than the hottest look now. So much more than a bouquet that you bring on a first date, honey, yeah. And it's more than ego, man. In the end love, love is more than a wedding day. It's more than a green light tag. So much more than a one night stand. So much than the slithering and the trick and trade that's fallen hard upon the man.
(singing) And it's more than ego, man. In the end love, love is more than a wedding day.
TUCKER: Chesnutt, or at least the persona he presents, is an enthusiastically devotional person. On the song that began this review, "Till I Met Thee," he addresses God, portraying his own life as empty until he found faith. He's a rip-roaring preacher whose sermons can be scrambled and confusing.
When he delivers a song called "Under the Spell of the Handout," is he really suggesting that poor people should not accept charity, lest they lose their souls, their free will - or, as he puts it, commit treason? I don't know, but the song sure is catchy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE SPELL OF THE HANDOUT")
CHESTNUTT: (singing) Walking on a path to perdition I see the smokestacks in my periphery huffing overtime, spewing the residue of the working class's faith in democracy. Church house tilting on that banknote. Attracting folk, give me some money, lord, yeah. That three-piece snack is riding on a three-minute song with that horsehair selling out while that sub woofer's bu-bu-bumping hollin' about I'm hungry for freedom but I don't know how to eat that way.
(singing) Because I'm under the spell of the handout. Under the spell of the handout. I adore the gold and cash...
TUCKER: ChesnuTT's music emphasizes horns and keyboards and backup singers who echo his sloganeering. He's a preachy egomaniac, but a blissful, delightful one. Despite his entreaty, I do want to follow him, even when he's leading me into a new musical wilderness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA GO THE OTHER WAY")
CHESTNUTT: (singing) A frustrated young man, yeah, carrying that load, yeah. Carrying that old load. Hey, said I'm trying, trying hard. Trying to hold onto my home. Hold onto my home. Don't wanna go the other way. Don't wanna go the other way. Faith in God...
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "Landing on a Hundred" by Cody ChesnuTT. Coming up, James Bond and Lincoln and a review from our film critic David Edelstein. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)