By: John Gaudes
It may be the closest thing he’s done to pop music, but four years on, “Smoke Ring For My Halo” is still the Kurt Vile record I spend the most time with. It was sleek, sure, but the sound was hazy alt-country all the way, perfectly framing lyrics that touted Vile as both anarchist and a model of distanced apathy.
Vile’s always been like that, the high school kid with long hair who was a little too into politics and Springsteen records. He’s always had something to say, but throws his beliefs out there like he’s exhaling cigarette smoke – “things aren’t going great, man.” I got along with those guys well in high school, so I tend to fall back on the more humorous “Puppet to the Man” from Smoke Ring, with its equally sad and hilarious chorus: “Well I think by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man / Well, I’ll tell you right now you best believe that I am.” The world’s all weighing him down, so why not just turn it around and embrace it?
Kurt Vile’s new record, “b’lieve I’m goin’ down,” doubles down on this jaded sound, along with all the most “Kurt Vile-y” aspects of his music. In another life, it plays like a stand-up comedy album, with several tracks tackling dark subjects without turning the lights off. Even the title is droll, all lower case and punctuated to sound as hazy as possible.
The prototype of this mindset, of course, is lead single “Pretty Pimpin”. Built on a country lick, Vile gets introspective with the opening line “I woke up this morning / didn’t recognize the man in the mirror” before knocking off some Hall of Fame-level tongue in cheek lines:
Then I laughed and I said, “Oh silly me, that’s just me”
Then I proceeded to brush some stranger’s teeth
But they were my teeth, and I was weightless
Just quivering like some leaf come in the window of a restroom
The delivery is equally important to the writing with introspective lines like this. Vile annunciates and rolls out his words, giving you the vibe of someone who might be playing a character to separate the listener from himself.
In his interviews, you get the same type of happy/sad dichotomy, running back and forth across the spectrum. When asked about the record by Uproxxx earlier this month, Vile said, “This record, as rewarding as it is, and as many great times came from it, I remember some psychological internal struggling, and ultimately the music exorcises those demons. But that said, it’s also joyous. It’s not too dark or anything. If you had to give each [album] a measurement – just like if you had to throw somebody in a f*cking hat and call them Americana – this one’s a downer. If you had to pick one, it’s more down than up.”
No track gets quite as down on the new record as “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)”. Vile strips his band away for some fantastic acoustic strumming, pining “When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off / Or to just take a chillax, man and forget about it” before sighing “That’s life, though / In every brutal way”. The rest of the song looks at death and life wasted, and while written fantastically, it doesn’t offer much in the way of positivity. If this is a darker album, this is one track that envelopes a bleak state of mind.
Outside of that, though, there’s just too many great joke lines for the listener to walk away with any negative feelings. No other artist could compare a headache to a “Shop Vac, coughin’ dust bunnies” or profess his love to a girl with this tip-of-the-tongue nervousness: “I’m looking at you / But it’s only a picture so I take that back / But it ain’t really a picture / It’s just an image on a screen / You can imagine if I was though, right?”
It’s cliché to compare Vile in his own genre, but there’s really no peers for Vile in alternative rock when it comes to engaging listeners through a dreamy sound. Ironically, his best comparison is the band he left seven years ago, The War on Drugs. That band’s lead singer, Adam Granduciel, doesn’t have the tongue in cheek mindset, though – last year’s “Lost In The Dream” is bleaker and more fragile than “b’lieve I’m goin’ down”. A greater record? Sure. But if you’re looking for comedy, Granduciel doesn’t put that silver bullet into his introspection.
By being funny, or just staying true to his character, Vile has managed to continually improve his music as the years go by. “b’lieve I’m goin’ down” may have been advertised as a darker album, but it plays like the truest indication of who Vile is – that quiet kid shooting spitballs from the back of the classroom, thinking about his guitar and his place in the world.