I still remember, 2011: the supposed apocalypse was looming, blood was still being shed in the Middle East (as it always is), the decriminalization of marijuana had yet to start, and the best music on the planet was the Dirty Projectors’ uplifting proclamation of a “Cannibal Resource.” We media consumers were set promptly, in the midst of all this, to behold a dark, shadowy figure supposedly the savior of indie rock — Kurt Vile. I immediately imagined his music as something lugubrious and foreboding, sort of like a Bonnie “Prince” Billy meets Godspeed You! Black Emperor. And then, of all things, come to find out, Smoke Ring for My Halo chirps like a new bird of spring — candy-cloaked melodies under this damaged, boyish voice, music for coffee mornings, not carpet-staining heroin parties — an everyman’s swatch of optimism very much in the vein of fellow New Jersey approximation Yo La Tengo. As uncertain as the future seemed, Smoke Ring was if nothing else an excellent homage to the past, to the Stone Roses, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and maybe a little Wallflowers — a little fanning of the pressing need to live it up while we can.
In 2013, Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze was just that — dazed out, hazed out. It made for a perfect followup — it let us nobodies believe that we still were on the LEVEL of Kurt Vile, because it was only a snapshot of him waking up, and everybody is in the same sociological stratosphere first thing in the morning, before they put their shoes on, before they get into their cars. The songs stretched out into operatic oblivion, eight-odd minute type jam sessions courtesy of backing band the “Violators” — no attempt at pop was made, and with this being the case, Daze stood at least aptly on its own, and the nihilistic semantics proffered resembled a worthy platform for Vile’s nonchalant jibing.
The title “B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down,” of Kurt Vile’s new album, apparently comes from the line in Cream’s song “Crossroads,” which is an adaptation of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” though sped up and modified in lyric ever so slightly: “I’m standin’ at the crossroads / Believe I’m sinkin’ down.”
The first important thing to understand is that this represents almost a complete about face in influence from Smoke Ring for My Halo, which was basically bubble gum pop reinforced timelessly by that incessant, doglike Kurt Vile croon. Vile now with this new album speeds things up, and attempts at anthemic blues — the infusion of energy seeming to basically just coincide with the fact that this is Kurt Vile’s livelihood, the making of an album associated with the making of money.
But it’s the direct OPPOSITE type of statement so marrying of Vile’s apathetic hum on Smoke Ring — the world crashing around him, “She was a tomboy / And I was a peeping tom,” “Well I think right now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man / Well I’ll tell you right now you best believe that I am,” “When I’m a ghost I see no reason to run / When I’m already gone.” These were songs of escaping into oneself, within the narcotic euphoria of hazy, Deerhunter-influenced pop. Now, with this stepping outside himself, claiming to be an “outlaw” or any of various other archetypal, self-affirming American things, Vile can’t help, with that same boyish croon, to sound like even he himself thinks the entire thing is a joke, which would be corroborated by song titles like “Pretty Pimpin’” and “That’s Life tho.”
So whatever, it’s just another bad album, why am I writing about it? Well, for one thing, it’s still better than 80% of the other albums I’ve heard this year. I mean, the percussion is pretty interesting in “The Outlaw,” there seems to be some sort of box spring sound going on, and it is indeed tight, accomplished musicianship. Vile as just a guitarist in this band, bringing in another vocalist, like maybe folk-rock stand-in and charismatic scenester Mary Lou Lord?
Anyway, with Vile on these vocals, sort of like Urkle playing James Bond or something, there’s just something so BARE and unmistakable about the absurdity of the whole thing. Vile has changed, it’s plain and simple. His music taste, with success, has become more visceral — blues — and less plangent — reflective ’80’s pop. Give him credit for going with this, for not putting out a “Smoke Ring pt. 2,” although other bands have been known to put out listenable retreads, as in the case of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Hysterical, and maybe Fountains of Wayne’s Welcome Interstate Managers, both fellow East Coasters. Vile these days is making a mess of something, but that something is blues retro, and thus, in this case, not himself.