Affability in the face of gathering darkness: That’s been Kurt Vile’s game-plan all along. In Vile’s sepia-toned universe there’s very little that can’t be smoothed over with a polite nod of the head, a careful quip or the occasional meandering guitar solo. On 2011′s Smoke Ring For My Halo, he wrote a song called “Puppet To The Man,” which you’d think would be about feeling trapped in a dead-end job or in a system that doesn’t respect your individuality; instead, Vile found moments of contentment in the midst of a nullifying bureaucratic hell. “Sometimes I’m in a rut so much I don’t want it to end,” he sang. On his new album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, he’s made the rut his home.
It’s not easy looking that laid back. Vile has been consistently mislabeled as a slacker, which isn’t too surprising given his long hair, his mumblecore Philadelphia drawl and his tendency to give his albums titles like Wakin On A Pretty Daze. He’s really more of wry introvert than a burnout. He’s a workaholic in a deadbeat’s clothing. He’s a homebody moonlighting as a drifter. Mixing aloofness, introspection and sarcasm, he’s managed to give the word “chill” a good name, mostly by giving it a touch of lucidity and some intelligence. Let’s put it this way: he’s less like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed And Confused, more like Bill Murray in Stripes. He’s a smart-ass, but he’s a generous and quizzical smart-ass, like the cool older cousin you wish you had.
That sense of levity was often harder to locate on the existentially inclined Smoke Ring and the more garage-rock indebted early records, but on Wakin the self-examination and poetry come equipped with plenty of wordplay and dad jokes; far from a young punk, Vile is married with two kids, and the album revels in the pleasures of domesticity. “Rising at the crack of dawn/I gotta think about what wisecracks I’m gonna drop along the way today,” he sings on the album’s opening title track. These are songs to listen to around the house or in the backyard or in the carpool lane. On the appropriately titled “Snowflakes Are Dancing” he turns these listening methods into a personal credo. “Snowflakes are dancing/Discman is pumping,” he sings. “Headphones are loud/Chilling on a pillowy cloud.” Is Kurt Vile secretly the Based God? Yes, I think he is.
Certain songs have an immaculate, metallic veneer to them—the robo-swagger drums of “Was All Talk,” the spacey synth lines of “Air Bud” (yep, “Air Bud”)—and at its most sprawling moments it brings to mind the wide-eyed chug of the War On Drugs, a band Vile used to play in, and the Bowie-gets-rustic cosmic tilt of Nightlands. What keeps Vile more grounded than his skyward peers is his guitar playing, which alternates between John Fahey-like plucking, Tom Petty rambling and Neil Young squalling—often in the space of a single song. He’s only gotten more precise and confident as a player, his lush tones achieving an unfussy, ruminative beauty throughout the record’s 11 songs.
Yes, there are 11 songs on the record; on first listen, it feels a little difficult to navigate, like diving into a pool filled with warm sand. At over an hour and with two 10-minute-ish epics bookending it, the album has a heft to it that the more sketchbook-like Smoke Ring never had. Vile is stretching his legs here, but he’s also knocking a bunch of shit over with his boots. Despite being filled with seemingly tossed-off couplets of casual brilliance, stoned eloquence and subtle humor, he still can’t resist falling for the saccharine and reaching for New Age platitudes when a more specific image would suffice. “Life is like a ball of beauty/It makes you just wanna cry/Then you die,” he sings on the finger-picking slow-burner “Too Hard,” and while I buy the sentiment, that type of directness doesn’t do Vile’s already plainspoken lyrics any favors. The album’s second half in particular can get a little repetitive as the perpetual twilight of the record never settles into darkness, the creeping light blinding you as it stretches out in an infinite loop.
Despite the length of the album, it’s gratifying to cup your hands over your eyes and squint into Vile’s self-effacing and self-reflexive world. There’s something invigorating about hearing a mind loop back on itself in constant pursuit of a question it never even knew it asked. As Vile’s skills as a songwriter continue to calcify, turning his records from little precious stones to giant crystals of classic rock worship, his mind only grows more curious. He’s asking classic psychedelic questions in vernacular that’s all his own: Is this it? Are we all alone? Can you ever escape the prison of your mind? “I will promise to do my very best/To do my best for god and for country,” he sings. “Maybe I’m just human after all.”