Whatever, man: Kurt Vile's b’lieve i’m goin’ down...
Kurt Vile may come off like a slacker, but there’s been lots of hard work along his path to indie acclaim. With the long curly hair cascading from his scalp and ever-content “whatever, man’’ tone of voice, he cuts a bashful, moribund figure. His lonesome brand of guitar-based melancholia, imbued with the capability and wisdom of a much older artist, is impeccably befitting. For years before his breakthrough the Philadelphia singer-songwriter mind-numbingly bottled beer, made boxes, and drove forklifts at a local brewing company. Perhaps this period of his life is from where his musical nonchalance emanates.
Fast forward to the present and Vile is a talented if unlikely rock star, artful, yet blue-collar. This divergent appeal helped 2011’s whimsical Smoke Ring For My Halo become a much-loved critical darling, paving the way for the breezy Wakin' on a Pretty Daze to achieve a similar success in 2013. The endearing, concurrent twang of Vile’s heavy-handed fingerpicking and Philly accent saw August 28 that year named “Kurt Vile Day” in his home city, coinciding with Wakin’s highly anticipated release. Any successful artist operating outside of New York, L.A. or any other of America’s traditional creative hubs will draw more eyes and ears to their respective city. Such is Vile’s efficacious, easy listening charm, he’s become the goofy poster boy for not only his city, but folk, rock and country buffs everywhere.
Since leaving fellow alt-rockers and Philly natives The War on Drugs in 2008, Vile has been studiously refining and shaping his solo musical identity, each album a new digression on what has been (so far) a sharp upwards trajectory. b’lieve i’m goin down is the latest stop on the unflustering KV freak train, a record Vile spent about 12 months recording around the world, reportedly chasing down a specific sound in his head. The sound he ultimately returns with is starkly bare – very much a less-is-more kind of thing.
Upon first play, more fervent Vile fans may feel this represents a disappointing plateau – I know it did for me. Initial listens fall victim to the vertiginous standards and arrangements of previous releases, though as the play counts rise the album demands a spot on the critical mantelpiece next to its illustrious predecessors. “I kind of let go of big expectations, maybe because hopefully that means if I don’t have them, that it’ll do really well,” Vile told The AV Club in July. The same sentiment applies to the listener – by releasing forethought and preconception, allowing the album room to blossom, b’lieve develops alongside its eccentric creator into a playful, profound and endlessly replayable paragon.
Among the distorted stomp of opener “Pretty Pimpin’”, we find Vile in a very different mood to the one we left him in two years ago. Wakin’ closer “Goldtone”, a waiflike, up-in-the-clouds koan sung through a late-night haze of psychedelics and sedatives, was perhaps the album’s climax; its chromatic scales and ethereal “yeahs” inducing an otherworldly lucidity. Firmly back on Earth in 2015, it’s the next morning and Vile, waking up hung over and looking into the bathroom mirror in a stupor, is unable to recognise the teeth, clothes and hair looking back at him. Emerging from a bed of warm synths and percussion his mind is grounded once again, snapping out of his pretty daze into a new day, a new era.
Gone are the windswept guitar solos from Wakin’, traded in for stripped-back banjo and piano phrases weeping with insatiable ache. This time around, Vile’s fretwork tends to act like well-placed punctuation points, humbly delineating structure and enlivening their surroundings. There’s nothing superfluous, and songs are comprised of only a handful of major chords; to Vile, any more than this may as well be jazz fusion. Without dragging, they cycle continuously under near-visual melodies, as Vile mumbles his way toward a level of resonance even the most coherent of speakers would labour to find. It’s modest, resonant and almost celestial: something every creative hopes their work will eventually become.
Even with a noticeably thinner aura, Vile and producer Rob Schnapf (Beck’s Mellow Gold and Elliott Smith’s Either/Or) elicit a beautiful alt-country purgatory. What really shapes and heightens Vile’s best moments has never been driven by aesthetics, and b’lieve substantiates his ability to conjure vibrant moods with only a few layers of sound. The languid drum and piano patterns of “Life Like This” recall Eno classic “Dead Finks Don’t Talk”, with the sonic experimentation and lysergic video to match, while the recurrent “Wheelhouse” ushers us into Vile’s very own area of meditative comfort. Drum cymbals sizzle, as guitar ambience melts, bends and warps in the track’s hot desert sun.
Comprising an eclectic array of endlessly quotable anecdotes, b’lieve is both the gloomiest and funniest record Vile has made. While he can go off on a playful tangent with the kind of wry, self-aware musings to make stand-up comedians whimper with existential anguish, he can also thrust a dagger into your heart à la fellow quasi-slacker Courtney Barnett (who Vile professed his love for in a recent Vice interview). It’s these concurrent, disparate emotions which, often manifesting themselves within the ever-widening confines of a single Vile track, has helped the ascension of his career. Delivering the same kind of lyrics you’d expect to hear in a throwaway rap song with the metaphysical air of a level-headed daydreamer, he converts the otherwise cliché allegory of “All in a Daze Work” and “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)” into something much more unique and astute.
“When I go out I take pills to take the edge off / or to just take a chillax, man and forget about it / just a certified badass out for a night on the town,” he warbles atop the rolling hill fingerpicking of the six-and-a-half minute latter. He immediately continues, switching to prose and subject matter a little more staid: “Ain't it oh-exciting, the way one can fake their way through life / but that's neither here or there / in a way, how could one ever prove you're just putting them all on?”
It’s difficult to be satisfied with your personal identity and accept things aren’t always going to remain a picture of sunshine, no matter who you are. Content with immersing himself by the “rolling hills along some mid-western highway” or just simply “sitting out on the porch”, Vile offers us a solution, a fleeting escape. When things regress, the best idea might be to just take a step back and, as he later advises us on album bookend “Wild Imagination”, give it some time. It’s simple, effective advice on a stunningly simple, effective track, epitomising the more compact direction Vile seems to be maturing toward. It’s a hugely comfortable culmination, and ending on an ambiguous piano cadence Vile floats over the horizon, out of once sight again. We’ll re-join him at some point in the future, though where that will be is anyone’s guess.
As Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon eloquently puts it in the album’s press release: “[b’lieve] is all air, weightless, bodyless, but grounded in convincing authenticity, in the best version of singer-songwriter upcycling”. With an average running time of six minutes, tracks smoothly roll on-end as Vile gets lost in his own meandering mind, completely unhurried. As declared on “Pretty Pimpin’”, all he wants is “to just have fun” and “live his life like a son of a gun”. He’s happy to do what he wants. We’d be senseless not to let him.