Wakin On A Pretty Daze felt like a happy ending for Kurt Vile. The album’s blissed-out folk-rock jams doubled as portraits of a rock star who’d settled into an immensely appealing version of middle age: Get famous enough to draw big crowds, sell a new record to your constituents every couple years, tour enough to pay the bills, spend tons of quality time at home with your friends and family between jaunts around the world. After years kicking out shadowy roots-rock tracks and touring the world’s dive bars, Vile had stumbled into something like success, and with it, something like happiness. As such, Wakin was the first Vile record to sound like the light of day. But as the man himself puts it on his new b’lieve i’m goin down, “Stay Puft was on top of the world, then he fell all the way back down, naturally/ The laws of physics have shown that a man must walk through life by peaks and valleys.” That song is called “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say it),” and don’t let its goofy Ghostbusters reference fool you. Like the album title, it spells out the prevailing theme: Vile is bummed out again.
The sadness is explicit from the beginning. Opening track “Pretty Pimpin” pointedly mirrors the placid introduction to Vile’s last album. The narrator behind “Wakin On A Pretty Day” arose to beauty and the comforts of domestic life in his hometown, unfazed by distractions like a buzzing telephone. The Vile of “Pretty Pimpin” is unrecognizable as that man, including to himself. He puzzles upon seeing his face in the bathroom mirror: “Then I laughed and I said, ‘Oh silly me, that’s just me’/ Then I proceeded to brush some stranger’s teeth/ But they were my teeth, and I was weightless/ Just quivering like some leaf come in the window of a restroom.” On paper, the lyrics are almost laughable, but delivered in Vile’s Philadelphia drawl and matched with one of his transcendent riff-based grooves, they’re poetry. And anyhow, as Vile told Grantland, even this ode to self-loathing has a note of humor built in: The man in the mirror is a “stupid clown,” but in Vile’s wardrobe he looks “pretty pimpin.”
In early press before the official album announcement, Vile called b’lieve a swing back toward the darkness of Smoke Ring For My Halo: “It’s definitely got that night vibe.” And while there are distinct similarities to Smoke Ring, this largely feels like a new kind of despair for Vile. It’s the kind that comes when you get everything you always wanted and still find yourself anxious about pursuing that path, longing for something more or at least something else. The guy who made Childish Prodigy and Smoke Ring For My Halo had a swagger in his sadness; on b’lieve, he often sounds beaten down by the world and unsure what to do about it other than write beautiful, gnarled rock songs steeped in folk and the blues. That weariness hasn’t diminished his authority as a songwriter, though; instead, Vile’s discontent pushed him to experiment with his well-developed aesthetic in subtle but exciting ways.
Consider “Pretty Pimpin.” Ostensibly a classic Kurt Vile guitar jam, it boasts a structure and feel unlike anything in his discography. It’s as upbeat and accessible as “Jesus Fever,” but groovier and more self-aware. “Pretty Pimpin” also resigns its many riffs to the business of rhythm and texture, which turns out to be a bellwether for the rest of the record. For once, Vile has opted to rein in his endless solos. That may not sound like good news for fans who’ve anointed him as the rare 21st century guitar hero, but b’lieve does nothing to diminish his status as one of rock’s most talented instrumentalists. It’s just that his fretwork always serves the larger picture here, and sometimes he applies his skills to different instruments this time around.
The biggest revelations are the tracks written on piano, an instrument that has never played a prominent role in Vile’s nü-classic rock. “Life Like This” uses a couple pretty arpeggios as a foundation for almost rap-like ruminations on Vile’s ability to roll with the punches, and when the guitars do hit, they hit with a swarming beauty worthy of Wilco. “Lost My Head There” is even better, a lightweight Randy Newman romp that morphs into a gorgeously droning roots-rock trance before you realize what’s happening. “I’m An Outlaw,” which Vile wrote on a homemade banjo, is a less radical reinvention — and given Vile’s domestic lifestyle and reverence for the rock ‘n’ roll canon, “outlaw” seems like a stretch — but the song’s backwoods fingerpicking spruces up a songwriting template that otherwise would be in danger of wearing thin.
The influx of new ideas and approaches means that when Vile does return to his classic formats, they hit like new. He’s long been a master of the meandering, finger-plucked acoustic sprawl, and “That’s Life tho” is arguably the finest of his career, though the spartan “Kidding Around” gives it competition. Similarly, “Dust Bunnies” is another solid contribution to the slightly skewed Neil Young/Tom Petty zone that has long been Vile’s wheelhouse — no offense to drowsy, minimal psych of “Wheelhouse,” which represents another one of his wheelhouses. And “Wild Imagination,” which ends the album swinging back toward optimism, shows how much beauty Vile can glean from an a few chords, a drum machine, and his own twisted wisdom.
Variety, exploration, and artful songwriting aside, b’lieve’s biggest win may be perceived length. Wakin was 69 minutes and felt twice as long. Its many extended instrumental passages seemed to drone on into infinity, largely by design — it was a state of contentment to get lost in. This new album is only seven minutes shorter, but it breezes by, at least as much as a set of songs this dark and open-ended can be said to “breeze.” Vile has expressed ambivalence about the prospect of “going pro” like his buddies in the War On Drugs, and yeah, b’lieve is far from a crossover record designed to court the masses. This is not the sound of compromise; it’s the same Vile we’ve always known, simply older, wiser, and a little more distraught. Yet even as he shies away from world domination, what can we call Vile’s continued mastery of his chosen form if not professionalism?
b’lieve i’m goin down is out 9/25 on Matador.