The Anniversary

Wakin On A Pretty Daze Turns 10


When the City of Philadelphia told Kurt Vile it was naming a day after him, the hometown hero was confused. Kurt Vile Day would take place on August 28th, but Vile wanted a clarification. “It’s not: every August 28th is Kurt Vile Day, right?” A city official assured him it would just be a one-time celebration, though Vile was still uneasy with all the pageantry. “What am I, like, Benjamin Franklin caliber?”

Vile didn’t think of himself as a Philly icon, but the city was changing. At the turn of the century, Philly, along with a number of other struggling American cities, prioritized quality of life over job creation. Establish a vibrant cultural hub, the theory surmised, and young people would move there. Eventually, employers would follow. 2013 seemed to prove the city’s gambit was working: Homicides were down to a 46-year low, construction was expanding, and 25-to-35 year olds were flocking to Fishtown, East Passyunk, and West Philly in droves. There were still problems, as anyone living in the city would’ve reminded you — including an underfunded and underperforming school system, one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and the displacement of residents by the gentrifiers the city was happy to welcome — but Philly’s narrative had shifted in spite of them. That January, the New York Times couldn’t hide its amazement at what the supposed “sixth borough” had become: “Entire neighborhoods have been transformed, parks have been built, and a wave of newcomers — transplants priced out of places like New York and Washington — have brought new energy to the cultural and culinary landscape.”

A big part of that cultural landscape was Philly’s flourishing indie-rock scene. Unlike in New York, it wasn’t hard for a musician to land a low-stakes part-time job and even easier to find a warehouse where they could rehearse, host shows, or record an album. Philly was also a convenient landing pad for touring acts, with easy access to I-95 and rooms in group houses for just a few hundred dollars a month. That year, the city was homebase for Alex G, Dr. Dog, Chris Forsyth, Hop Along, Little Big League, Man Man, Modern Baseball, Nothing, Purling Hiss, Radiator Hospital, Swearin’, The War On Drugs, and Waxahatchee — just to name a few. By 2015, this website would accurately call Philadelphia “the unexpected capital of American rock music.”

But of all of those artists, the mayor’s office understood Vile was the perfect representative of the city’s scene. For one thing, his most recent album at the time — Wakin On A Pretty Daze, released 10 years ago this Sunday — had attracted more media attention than any of his indie peers, with features in the Guardian and SPIN and a glowing Best New Music review from Pitchfork. More importantly, he looked and sounded like a guy from Philly, with a hoagiemouth so thick, so loaded with derts and wooders, that everyone knows where he’s from the second he starts talking. “You don’t strike me as a Philly kind of ‘fuck you’ guy,” Marc Maron told Vile in 2018. “No,” Vile said, pausing for a beat. “But I can be.”

Back in 2003, no one imagined Kurt Vile as a figurehead of Philly music, let alone a bona fide rockstar. The 23-year-old had just moved back to Philly after a stint in Boston, where he drove a forklift and spent his free time recording an odd combination of neo-Takoma guitar, droning tape fuzz, and psychedelic lyrics. His co-workers mocked his dreams of playing music, so he spent most of his days at work by himself, listening to classic rock radio while he unloaded trucks. “I got depressed so many times by my blue-collar life, and self-conscious about the fact that I didn’t go to college,” Vile told the Guardian in 2013. “I was always working super low-end jobs, being the complete opposite of what I wanted to be.”

When he returned to Philly, his life looked markedly similar, with one important change: He got a forklift job at Philadelphia Brewing Company and continued recording his songs, but the city’s community was more supportive. He began writing songs with his friend Adam Granofsky, who scrawled the stagename “Granduciel” on the CD-Rs he’d hand out to friends and strangers. Vile was also releasing CD-Rs, drawing his own black-and-white covers and creating jokey label names like Juicy Starz and Vile Dial. He released a few 7″s on some small labels, appeared on a punk compilation put out by Leftover Crack, and played shows whenever and wherever he could. His songs eventually caught the attention of long-running indie label Gulcher Records, who wanted to release an LP of Vile’s best tracks. The obvious pick for the first track was “Freeway,” the lone song Vile had recorded in a proper studio. The cost for the session had required months of extra shifts at the brewery, but it was worth every penny: “Freeway” is an undeniable hit, with the vocal swagger of Tom Petty and the anthemic optimism of Bruce Springsteen. Up to that point, Vile’s songs had occasionally gestured toward his classic rock heroes, but the production on “Freeway” pushed it beyond reference to become something that would’ve been at home on the classic rock rotation Vile had heard so many times back in Boston.

After the release of Constant Hitmaker in 2008, a deal with Matador followed. Each successive release attracted more national attention, though none of them embraced Vile’s classic rock influences the way “Freeway” did. 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo was a critical breakthrough and his first album recorded solely in a studio, but Vile was unsure about the final product. “It didn’t feel exactly me. I wasn’t entirely comfortable or experienced with the scenario,” he said in 2013.

When he began working on Smoke Ring’s follow-up, Vile was determined to do something that encapsulated all of his tastes, including the shimmery classic rock he’d captured on “Freeway.” He started reading Barney Hoskyns’ Hotel California, a detailed tell-all about the Laurel Canyon scene, and was enchanted by the artistic community and its surreal atmosphere, which Hoskyns describes as “exotic palms and dry desert air and the omnipresent vault of blue sky.” “I just wanted to catch those cosmic vibes,” Vile later told SPIN. He booked studio time in LA and started joking he was working on a “prog pop” album that would be the next Tusk. There were additional sessions in Philly, Brooklyn, and near Woodstock, but the California sessions came to define the project. “I think some of that sunny vibe got in there,” Vile said. “I wanted to brighten up a bit.”

Wakin On A Pretty Daze was Vile’s most straightforward rock record to that point, with radio-ready standouts like “KV Crimes” and “Shame Chamber” featuring big hooks and crunchy solos. But “straightforward” is a relative term for a Kurt Vile record: The album’s opener, the near-title track “Wakin On A Pretty Day,” is almost 10 minutes long, a certifiably ridiculous length for the first track and first single. Despite its length, the song is impossibly infectious, with its sunny instrumentation and morbid lyrics growing more mesmerizing with every passing minute. “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing,” Vile sings softly over his breezy acoustic, “it’s only dying.” Similarly, there’s a black cloud hanging down as the synths take off in “Air Bud” and a codeine-drenched, Springsteen-infused walk through a blizzard in “Snowflakes Are Dancing.” At times the darkness seems to take over, but then Vile lightens the mood with his genuinely funny impressions of rockstar bravado. On “Was All Talk,” he sings about stalker fans as a frenetic drum loop heightens his paranoia. Even there, he can’t resist some levity. “Making music is easy,” he sings, taunting his naysayers. “WATCH me.”

The balance of sun and shadow is the core of Wakin On A Pretty Daze, with Vile ruminating on death and reckoning with fatherhood while playing the catchiest music he’d ever recorded. Rather than creating his own Tusk, Vile split the difference between the warmth of Fleetwood Mac and the terror of On The Beach. The album’s final track, the epic 10-and-a-half-minute “Goldtone,” serves as a sprawling thesis statement for Vile’s approach to songwriting and life. “I might be adrift, but I’m still alert,” he sings. “I concentrate my hurt into a goldtone.”

Although the record owes its shimmer to California, Vile wanted to make it clear that its heart was still Philadelphia’s. He commissioned legendary West Philly artist Steve “ESPO” Powers to conceive the cover, a multiple-story mural on the side of a building along the Markford-Frankford train line. Like the many faded wall-painted signs for watering holes and elevator companies throughout Philly, the Wakin mural aligned Vile’s record with the city’s blue-collar identity. “Kurt Vile is another object on the industrial landscape,” Powers explained. “Music and art are two of the most powerful industries that we have here.”

Wakin On A Pretty Daze is when Vile transcended his role as hometown hero and became one of just a few contemporary American rock stars. In the years that would follow, he’d hit #1 on a Billboard chart with “Pretty Pimpin,” attract the envy of Keith Urban, collaborate with the late John Prine, and write songs for a platinum-selling pop artist. But on Kurt Vile Day, he was still getting used to the idea that he was on the level of his heroes. Before Vile performed, an official explained that the city was bestowing its highest honor. “This is presented to very few people, really only the most important folks,” he said, handing Vile a replica of the Liberty Bell. “Visiting dignitaries, ambassadors…and now Kurt Vile.”

Vile leaned into the microphone. He needed another clarification. “The Rolling Stones, too, right?”

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