My oh my has Kurt Vile come a long way in a short time. Upon leaving The War on Drugs, he embarked on a solo career that began officially in 2008 when his album “Constant Hitmaker” was released via the very tiny Gulcher Records. The following year, Woodsist gave that record a higher profile re-release, Mexican Summer put out his sophmore album “God Is Saying This to You” and Matador placed his third album “Childish Prodigy” on shelves. In other words, it was a flood of Kurt Vile music in 2009 when it’s often tough enough to keep track of just one record by an artist. The first two albums were extremely lo-fi bedroom folk recordings, like a Bob Dylan or a Tom Petty but with serious audio fidelity issues. That didn’t make them any less compelling though, and in fact the lack of quality was part of its charm. “Childish Prodigy” held that same aesthetic for about half the record, but the other half featured Vile’s touring band The Violators and therefore could be called a legitimate step forwards. The production got cleaner and the melodies more dense, but along with that some of the more unique qualities vanished. Still, there was inherent potential shining through the shakier moments, as if to say that if Vile focused just a little harder he might just rise to the level of indie superstar. Taking a little time off and also touring for the last year seems to have pushed him in the direction needed to get his act fully together, because his new record “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is filled with the dynamic and prolific moments that unveil an entirely new side that had only been hinted at up til now.
Kurt Vile has ditched the bedroom for a recording studio fully on “Smoke Ring for My Halo”, and as a result there’s a very crisp sheen over the entire album that really adds an unexpected beauty to it. While Vile has always been a superstar when it comes to finding wonderful little melodies that are compelling and adventurous, lush and gorgeous are words that don’t typically apply to them. The Violators are still backing him up, but their contributions are minimal compared to the guitar and vocals which takes precedence over everything else. The biggest adjustment though is with Vile’s vocals, because not much of his older material had the clarity with which to fully discern what he was singing about. It wasn’t so bad that every song was a mangled vocal mess, but when you’re pulling a D.I.Y job corners need to be cut somewhere. So what this new record reveals is that Vile is one hell of a lyricist. A standard love song like “Baby’s Arms”, which starts off the album, gets extra creative thanks to lines like, “shrink myself just like a Tom Thumb/and I hide in my baby’s hand/cause except for her there just ain’t nothing to latch onto”. For “Puppet to the Man”, expectations are defied as Vile says, “I get by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man”, and it seems safe to assume that most everyone would deny that sort of accusation. Instead, he embraces it, concluding, “I’m shouting out loud because I know that I am” while also requesting help to get him unstuck from said puppetry. One of the most vivid and amazing songs on the entire record is “On Tour”, where the miseries and problems of touring are hinted at between gigs. “Watch out for this one, he’ll stab you in the back for fun”, Vile says, most likely talking about untrustworthy people in the music industry. But his passion for music also comes through in lines like, “I wanna sing at the top of my lungs/scream annoyingly/cause that’s just me being me/being free”. The stage is always the one place you can let your frustrations out without a care in the world, and if you like you can “beat on a drum so hard ’til it bleeds blood”. Darkness hovers all over “Runner Ups”, but Vile isn’t afraid to throw a little bit of black humor in for good measure. “If it ain’t workin’/take a whiz on the world/an entire nation drinking from a dirty cup”, he sings just before explaining that he may have lost his best friend but there are runner ups in waiting. And there’s something inherently brilliant about the way the words are arranged on closer “Ghost Town” that totally grabs you despite what appears to be pure simplicity. “When I’m out/I’m away in my mind/Christ Was born/I was there/You know me/I’m around/I’ve got friends/Hey wait, where was I?/Well, I am trying” doesn’t even make that much sense reading it, but hearing the words coming out of Vile’s mouth they become more like windows into his own personal daydream. The series of thoughts that we all have from time to time, where we drift between subjects effortlessly and without acknowledgement of the oddity of it all can be a powerful thing when harnessed properly. In this case, Kurt Vile makes it exactly that.
“Smoke Ring for My Halo” may thrive in new and unexpected ways thanks in large part to some great lyrics, but the tuneful and intimate melodies serve to enhance what’s already there. With the distortion and other effects almost entirely absent from this record, it leaves much more room for these arrangements to breathe comfortably and with increased virility. One guitar, whether it’s acoustic or electric, carefully picked or briskly strummed, matched with Vile’s voice is all that’s really needed, but the little extras give them an unexpected oomph in the right direction. The shakers and tambourines on “Baby’s Arms” aren’t designed to stand out, but it’s tough to think that the song would be better off without them. The way the guitar strings vibrate on “On Tour”, like they’re frayed or too loose and need a good tightening adds to the weariness of the words, while the soft plinks of the keyboard helps to break up the monotony of the same chords strummed over and over again. In the case of songs like “In My Time” and “Peeping Tomboy” though, the aggressive nature of the guitar work is more than enough to sustain interest in the song without having to really break out any extra elements for supplementary purposes. If the record does have a flaw though, it’s the lack of hooks and marketable singles. Vile’s not exactly known for his commercial prowess and earworms that stick in your head, but on occasion he has managed to pull a supremely memorable melody that you’ll find yourself humming as you go about your day. From “Freeway” to “Freak Train”, the rattle and hum of those tracks was a draw in the past, enough to make them highlights on records that fell anywhere from pretty good to just a little mediocre. Funny then that with the decrease in memorability comes an increase in respectability, the result of which is Kurt Vile’s strongest record to date. Weaker moments like “Jesus Fever” and “Society Is My Friend” are fewer and farther between than ever before, and are supported on all sides by bastions of strong songwriting and melodies that occasionally allow for streams of sunlight to filter through the darkness. It may not be perfect, but it’s definitely another huge step forwards for Vile in a very brief career already filled with them.