Three or four years ago, I saw Kurt Vile play one of the worst live sets of my life. He was the second act on a triple-bill at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, one that also featured Fucked Up and Zola Jesus, two strong and dynamic and ferocious live acts. Vile, by contrast, stood up there with his guitar, a goofy half-smile on his face, and bumbled his way through a bunch of songs that never seemed to end. He stood there, staring at a big clump of nothing off to the side of the stage, only barely even holding the space, hiding behind his vast hair. He finished his set with the nifty, Tom Petty-esque “Freeway,” the closest thing he had to a hit at the time, but he barely seemed to remember how the damn song went. That moment, I wrote Vile off forever, or anyway I thought he did. But the withdrawn, diffuse unseriousness that made his live show so unbearable someone turned into positives on Smoke Rings For My Halo, Vile’s very good 2011 album. And with Waking On A Pretty Daze, his new one, those same tendencies have led him to make an LP I won’t hesitate to call an instant classic.
It’s probably not a good idea to listen to Wakin On A Pretty Daze when you’re driving, especially in the first glorious burst of springtime, the narcotic weather that’s only just hitting the East Coast now. It might not be safe. Saturday afternoon here in Charlottesville was still and warm and perfect, and the album seemed to melt the air around me, to cause sunbeams to hit me like drugs. Driving around that day, other drivers kept honking at me because I wouldn’t notice when red lights turned green; I was too busy staring contemplatively at clouds wafting by. This album will do that to you. The basic components of the album are simple enough: Vile’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar, his conversational duck-honk of a voice, his band playing behind him, occasional bits of dinky keyboard-blip or ticky-tack drum machine. And he’s shaped those elements, more or less, into songs. But the songs, even the short ones, bend and flutter and unfurl at their own pace. They don’t flow steadily downstream; they trickle into eddies and brooks and tidal pools. And at a certain point, you stop processing the songs as songs, and the gentle curlicues of guitar become something like a physical sensation. Plenty of steel-string art-folk abstractionists aim to create that bliss-fugue state, and few of them have ever taken me there. But on this album, Vile keeps me stuck in it like honey, and he’s done it by singing a bunch of songs about being a father and a husband and a grown-up.
Vile likes to write in binder-doodle psychedelic imagery: “Spirit in the sky / Transparent to the eye,” that type of thing. But plenty of the lyrics on Waking On A Pretty Daze are grounded in a working-father concrete reality. He starts out “Wakin On A Pretty Day,” the album’s first song, singing about a cell phone on a shelf, buzzing so much it might fall down — “I guess it wanted to kill itself,” Vile shrugs. I know that feeling well. Vile is my age, 33, and married with two kids, like me. And he knows about that soft-bubble effect that can happen when you’re spending time with your family, when absolutely nothing else in the universe seems to matter the tiniest bit, when the slightest outside-world incursions are impossible to contemplate, when the phone will throw itself from the shelf before anyone even thinks about answering it. He knows about wanting to preserve the moment when your kids are tiny, when they need you, even though you know it won’t last, even though you know it shouldn’t: “I wanna live, all the time, in my fantasy infinity.” He knows about the cold reality that even those of us who have awesome, creative jobs have to leave our kids alone and punch the clock every once in a while, and he knows how shitty that feels even though you know it’s what needs to be done: “Take your time, so they say, and that’s probably the best way to be / But what about those who are fathers, and what about their daughters?” “KV Crimes” seems to be about the guilt of being on tour, trying to hang out with the psych wizards in Moon Duo when you just want to be back home with your kids: “I should’ve known / My heart has overgrown / Do you risk it exploding all over?” “Never Run Away” is about knowing the person he’s with right now is the person he’ll be with forever: “You met a young man who was a wild child / Who harmonizes keys in his droning mind / Saxophone sing from inside his head, crying, ’I know you’ll never run away.’” Plenty of the album is about more relatable stuff, about luxuriating in feeling bummed or letting your mind wander. But even when he’s not singing about that bubble, the album’s sound seems to emanate from within it.
Along with Vile and his band, John Agnello co-produced the album. Agnello is a former ’70s/’80s studio-rock pro who somehow became Dinosaur Jr.’s go-to guy, so he knows something about mystic, distractable guitar heroes. But he doesn’t record Vile like a rocker; he lets him amble and wander and mutter to himself, making sure the softest sounds he makes are preserved in all their pillowy intimacy. Vile, like J Mascis, is the type to interrupt himself mid-sentence with a guitar solo, and he does it at least once on the album. The first and last songs on the LP hover around the 10-minute mark, with Vile only stepping to the microphone when he and guitarist Jesse Trvovich have said all they need to say with their fingers. And once the mood sets in, it only slightly registers when one song transitions into another, when anything changes. Waking On A Pretty Daze is an album so devoted to looking around, to taking stock in a moment, that you barely notice when the moment is over. If you’ve got an afternoon to kill, you should spend it with this album, splaying out on a blanket and staring at the sky, maybe with a baby crawling over your chest. I like to think that’s what Vile was doing while he wrote the thing. And if he’d been something other than the faraway goofball whose live show I hated so much, could he have embodied that feeling? Probably not. Sometimes, it takes a dreamer to get shit done.
Waking On A Pretty Daze is out now on Matador.
- Kurt Vile – “Wakin On A Pretty Day”Download
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Knife’s vast and forbidding comeback Shaking The Habitual.
• James Blake’s artfully funky Overgrown.
• M83′s soundtrack album for the sci-fi movie Oblivion.
• Justin Vernon’s blues-rock side project the Shouting Matches’ amped-up Grownass Man.
• White Fence’s sputtering lo-fi psych-rocker Cyclops Reap.
• Young Man’s trilogy-completing indie-pop opus Beyond Was All Around Me.
• Former Beta Band singer Steve Mason’s solo move Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time.
• Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s classical synthpop throwback English Electric.
• Team Spirit’s cranked-up, partied-out self-titled garage rock debut.
• SZA’s arty R&B excursion S.
• Neon Indian’s remix EP Eratta Annex.