The musical equivalent of comfort food
Kurt Vile’s new album is a mellow melange of well-crafted soothing songs
On Bassackwards, a nearly 10-minute song that is the centrepiece of Kurt Vile’s new album, Bottle It In, his mildly psychedelic lyrics go all over the place. He’s at the beach but he’s thinking about the bay; then he gets to the bay but he’s already far away; he’s on a radio show with a friend where their conversation follows no format and veers backwards; next he’s on the grass, chilling out and his mind is drifting. Vile delivers all of these disconnected thoughts in his laconic style, softly, economically, and accompanied by his elegant guitar picking, but also strangely addictively.
Bottle It In is the 38-year-old, singer, songwriter and guitarist’s eighth studio album in the 10 years since he embarked on a solo career and the 13 songs on the 79-minute album have his distinctive stamp on them: laid-back lyrics dealing with everyday relatable issues; noodling electric guitar solos that use doses of reverb, echo, and distortion; and his lazy, effortless singing. Vile enlisted a number of noted musicians for his latest album: folk-rocker Cass McCombs, harpist Mary Lattimore, and former Sonic Youth co-founder Kim Gordon. The resulting soundscape is hypnotic yet intricate, and one that washes gently over you whether you’re listening to it on a long drive or just sitting back relaxed.
Vile’s music has often been described as stoner music or slacker rock. His influences range from shoe-gaze pioneers such as Yo La Tengo, and lo-fi indie rockers such as Pavement to classic older rock stars such as Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and 1970s’ era Neil Young. Vile began early, picking up the guitar and writing songs that he would record at home in his teens in his native Philadelphia. He co-founded The War On Drugs, a successful indie band, but left it after their debut album was released and set out on a solo career. A prolific phase began with 2008’s debut album, Constant Hitmaker, and in 2013, when he released Wakin On A Pretty Daze, his career took off.
Last year, Vile collaborated with Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett and the duo released Lotta Sea Lice, a warm and charismatic album that showcases two musicians complementing each other remarkably well to make songs that take innocuous quotidian topics but turn them into ardent works of art. It helped that both Barnett and Vile were already accomplished musicians. It’s always great to listen to new work from musicians who are at the peak of their career or near it and that’s what makes Bottle It In a lovely album. Vile is on a roll and that shows on his latest record.
Vile’s records are like the musical equivalent of comfort food. His lyrics are familiar, nostalgic and reminiscent of experiences that a listener can relate easily to. Yes, his songs can be indulgent. Bassackwards is not the longest song on Bottle It In; there are longer ones; the title track clocks in at 10 minutes and 39 seconds, and Skinny Mini is nearly as long. If I try and describe Vile’s songs, literally, as being made up of extended and stoned-sounding guitar licks with noisy ambient sounds, and lyrics that tend to go off on a tangent, they could seem like irksome stuff that could try your patience. The thing is that they don’t. He is somehow able to take all of that—self-indulgent lyrics and meandering guitar riffs—and make it into something that you can keep listening to no matter whether it’s playing as a soundtrack in the background to whatever you’re doing or you have them piped in via headphones for a more immersive experience.
On Skinny Mini, Vile sings about his love, a hippie girl who soothes his mind: She’s a skinny little, scrappy little, wild-talking, all good gal/ Always means well, baby girl, dandelion, flower child/All substance, no jive-talkin’, fast-walkin’, girl babe/ You might wanna, roll her up in a ball and eat her in a sandwich But it’s mine man (mine). But there are other layers to the song, such as references to climate change and cleaning up the strife in the world. On Mutinies, a track which fades out with a punk-era feedback from Kim Gordon’s guitar, he sings darkly of the futility of popping pills to cure mental health travails and of his disillusionment with personal technology such as smartphones.
It’s easy to hastily caption Vile’s music as being fuzzy, aimlessly wandering rock that would appeal to stoners. But that would miss its essence. Behind the loose fiddling around on his guitar and the nonchalance of his vocals is a careful effort to construct intricacies that even a casual listener can discern: in the multiple layers of musical arrangements; and the highly literate articulation of his lyrics. It’s a mellow melange of soothing songs. Vile has been garnering loyal fans and followers ever since he set out on his solo journey. With Bottle It In, he’ll certainly find more joining that tribe.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Bassackwards’ by Kurt Vile from ‘Bottle It In’
2. ‘Skinny Mini’ by Kurt Vile from ‘Bottle It In’
3. ‘Girl Called Alex’ by Kurt Vile from ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’
4. ‘Freeway’ by Kurt Vile from ‘Constant Hitmaker’
5. ‘Let It Go’ by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile from ‘Lotta Sea Lice’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan