Review Summary: KV adds banjo, existential musings; results still as good as ever
Kurt Vile, as both person and musician, is at once low key yet mildly absurd. Possessing a discography that somehow combines busy, intricate playing and a keen ear for sonic detail with a kind of lethargic, don't-care attitude comparable to noted musical somnambulist J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. , Vile's dazed earnestness is a welcome outlier amidst the self-conscious irony of the modern alternative music landscape. Over the span of 5 studio albums and an EP, he has has carved out a niche somewhere in the middle of Nick Drake-inspired folk fingerpicking, the amused detachment of Pavement and the scrappy, reverb-drenched haze of the American lo-fi scene. Additionally, and in similar style to his ex-bandmate Adam Granduciel of The War On Drugs, Vile is also fond of re-appropriating unfashionable 80s classic rock and country to his own warped ends, keeping the breezy sun-dappled textures but thankfully not the sickly, artificial production sheen that characterized much music of the era.
His latest, the infuriatingly styled b'lieve i'm goin down, is for the most part more of the same, at many points coming across as an amalgam of the KV back catalogue without really sounding like any one of his albums in particular. While this 'something for everyone' approach makes for a highly eclectic listen, the record occasionally suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis, sounding in weaker moments – the silly, shambling piano in the self-indulgent, overlong 'Lost My Head There' or the KV-by-numbers balladeering of 'Stand Inside' – like half written, reheated leftovers from across previous LPs. Vile's decision not to commit to a particular musical aesthetic, in contrast to Wakin' On A Pretty Day's
luxurious soft rock maximalism or the low-key acoustic folk of Smoke Ring For My Halo
can feel disjointed across a full 60 minutes.
However, for all its stylistic foibles the album contains plenty of career-best songwriting moments: opener 'Pretty Pimpin'' might be the finest of them all, artfully repurposing a twisted take on the 'Sweet Home Alabama' riff combined with naggingly catchy harmonies to tell an unusually mundane tale of existential crisis in front of the bathroom mirror. On paper it's dumb as hell, it's typical Kurt Vile and it works beautifully. In general, forays into poppier sounds tend to be the highlights – closer 'Wild Imagination' rides a nagging, spindly guitar line and a single melody for 5 golden minutes. In between, 'I'm an Outlaw' makes fine use of some hypnotic banjo and 'Dust Bunnies' is a prime slice of dusty road-trip rock, cruising along effortlessly on one of the album's most straightforward grooves.
Lyrically speaking, Vile's idiot-savant stoner philosophizing turns up about as many gems as it does induce cringing – the epic 'That's Life Tho (Almost Hate To Say)' is just about redeemed by its intricate fretboard curlicues despite the attempted (and thoroughly failed) profundity of the subject matter, an issue only exacerbated by the drawled, audibly smirking vocal delivery. Conversely, the mesmerizing psych-folk of 'Wheelhouse' backs some surprisingly sincere, introspective verses – It is never quite clear throughout the record where persona ends and person begins. Throughout, Vile makes choices both musically and lyrically that should be embarrassing and trite but he instead doubles down on them, creating a strange nether-world where the off-kilter, woozy arpeggios and conversational vocals of 'All In a Daze Work' can not only exist, but also not sound like the absolute worst title for a song ever. Kurt Vile isn't a fool, but he's not afraid to look like one, and in an odd way b'lieve i'm goin down
is a truly fearless record.