Kurt Vile Kurt VileSmoke Ring For My Halo
When he was a kid, his dad used to listen to country and bluegrass for hours on end. Later, like everyone else, Kurt Vile entered his punk phase and he got stuck in it. However, deep down he always knew he was one day going to write this record, a record that would leave his garage vein aside and uncover his most lyrical self. Anticipated on some tracks on “Childish Prodigy” (2009) such as “Overnite Religion” or “Unknown” and, perceptible in the heart of the splendid EP “Square Shells” he delivered last year, “Smoke Ring For My Halo” modifies the treatment the artist gives to textures, making them dilate and tending to a classicist vision of “cosmic American music”. In reality, Vile is going through the same phase as his parallel band The War On Drugs –the real one, so far, was The Violators–, who we could see touching on similar telluric sensations on their recent EP “Future Weather”. The important psychedelic folk-rock legacy of his hometown Philadelphia (which goes from Jim Croce and Todd Rundgren to his friends, such as the recently passed Jack Rose , or Meg Baird from Espers), seems to guide our long-haired troubadour along the path that is the fourth album of his career.
The sound of this marvellously titled “Smoke Ring For My Halo” transmits exactly that sensation: that of a ring of smoke floating over its author’s aureole. Deliberately lineal and exhausted, the album takes Vile to the emotional exploration of still waters, rather than dazzling with the kind of explicit violence that has predominated his career so far. The Stooges influence is gone and instead he has shaped a quiet and intricate repertoire that is strongly reminiscent of the ominous Cass McCombs; especially when you hear the touches of dream-pop of “In My Time” or opening track “Baby’s Arms”. With the latter track, the tone of the album starts out sweet and friendly, although, little by little, it becomes more cynical. In that sense, the aching “Society Is My Friend” couldn’t sound more misanthropic: “Society is my friend /It makes me lie down/In a cold blood bath.” What he does is hide the string of apathetic lyrics between lax melodies, bright acoustic guitars –with a nod to Neil Young on “Puppet To The Man” and “Smoke Ring For My Halo”, the track– and soft drums; he also puts the voice first, a voice which, in its phrasing, while it drifts sleepily over a bed of drones and reverbs, moves away from the Iggy Pop school and towards Lou Reed.
Recorded by a meticulous John Agnello (faced here with a different challenge from the ones he’s used to get from aggressive punk-rockers like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. or The Hold Steady), “Smoke Ring For My Halo” sounds elegant, patient and wise. Meant for the long haul and not apt for restless iPods, Vile says goodbye with it to the DIY philosophy and hello to the tidiness of a new sound, in a gesture of reverence that shows him almost naked, playing his guitar better than ever and feeling more comfortable when it comes to writing lyrics, which are by far above average. Desolate, fed up with almost everything and everyone, he sings on “Runner Ups”: “Don’t know if you really came, but I feel dumb in asking/You should’ve been an actress you’re so domineering.” And on the vigorous “Ghost Town” he declares himself incapable of finding his place in time and space, his place in the world. After that, the only thing left is to enjoy the great little minute of “(shell blues)” and its far-away bells.