In the video for “KV Crimes”, a highlight from his 2013 album Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Kurt Vile rode around Philadelphia on a throne, his flowing brown locks topped with a plastic crown. He was fed a royal meal of a Wawa hoagie, he sleepily waved at followers, and he rolled his eyes at giggling sycophants. The critical acclaim for the record justified his place as the slacker king of Philly, but even as he rode the wave of adoration, he seemed aloof — the endearing, lovable kind that seems inherently tied to his dazed, hazed stream-of-consciousness songwriting. Even at the top of his game, Vile couldn’t sit contentedly; existential questions and anxieties still rattled around in his head. So it should come as no surprise that follow-up b’lieve i’m goin down… finds Vile continuing to self-deprecate, amble, and sigh, despite the new tier of success. Neither should it be a surprise that all those qualities remain entirely charming.
While every part of the formula is recognizably Vile, that doesn’t mean he sat back and turned in another Wakin. b’lieve leaves behind some of the roots rock bravado and returns to the dark bedroom swoon of 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo. That darkness, though, is shaded by the inclusion of instruments like piano and banjo, rather than focusing more heavily on acoustic guitar. He already sounds comfortable writing on and for these tools, imbuing his jabs at himself with some extra warmth. He’s not just bemoaning his own headiness. He’s chuckling at how ridiculous he sounds when he does it. Recognizing that self-aware quality is necessary to get to the depths behind Vile’s plainspoken delivery and Pennsylvanian accent; the laughs and the heartbreakers make Vile’s music work like an emotional seesaw. “The laws of physics have shown that a man must walk through life by peaks and valleys,” he sings on “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)”.
(Interview: Kurt Vile – Step by Step to the Top of the World)
In interviews, Vile has called “Wheelhouse” the best song he’s ever written. That’s a high bar to jump over, but the immediacy of its spiritual depth resonates on a special level, uniting the highs and lows in a zen-like simplicity. The six-minute song rides on a cyclical guitar riff, something likely influenced by Tinariwen; before recording b’lieve, Vile jammed with the Malian desert blues band, and their droning figures seem to have left fingerprints all over the record. The koan-esque nature of the lyrics plays into that ecstatic calm. Vile talks when all he wants to do is listen; he’s alone in the middle of a group of friends. But he finds a place to “figure things out” in that mental solitude, potentially even a way toward a sort of peace: “Roll around on a floor of furry carpet then/ Sleep soundly for the first time in forever and/ Breathing deep inside.” The song’s references to “the temple” give it a religious, meditative hue, but the desert under the core of the earth and the hidden stairway in your own home suggest he’s finding that calm place entirely within himself. He did, after all, jam with Tinariwen, he recorded parts of the album out in the desert in Joshua Tree, and he wrote songs on the couch back home. He’s just now finding the temple underneath those surface realities.
But that calm is hard to come by. “I’m afraid that I am feeling much too many feelings simultaneously at such a rapid clip,” he sings on closer “Wild Imagination”, one of a few songs on the album that could’ve passed as Vile’s “best song ever” had he not made his own pick. The song starts on a slippery, smirking description of longing and absence in the modern age (“I’m looking at you/ But it’s only a picture so I take that back/ But it ain’t really a picture/ It’s just an image on a screen”), but builds up a sheen of desperate hope, as long as he and the woman he’s addressing can just “give it some time.” Meanwhile, “Pretty Pimpin” splits Vile’s consciousness apart at the bathroom mirror, allowing himself to fully comment on his own insecurities. “I’m an Outlaw” uses banjo and references to “wise blood” to shade the dusty drum machine rhythm into a mischievous Western shrug, as he warns about an impending implosion.
“I’m an Outlaw” takes on some Neil Young tone and the smoky “Dust Bunnies” draws from Bob Dylan’s tone and cribs Sam Cooke’s lyrics, but Vile isn’t emulating anyone. He’s just picking up echoes of the past, both those of the rock tradition and those of his own. In fact, “Wild Imagination” picks up on “believers and lovers” (a phrase Vile has used a few times in his catalog), and “All in a Daze Work” hinges on a double entendre tied to his last album title. But that’s just how Vile’s brain works. Music is so important to him and to communicating through the haze of existential anxiety that it infiltrates the most personal thoughts and fuses them together. Getting let into that fusion, once again, is an absolute pleasure.
Essential Tracks: “Pretty Pimpin”, “Wheelhouse”, and “Wild Imagination”