Slacker pop perfection from our favourite long-hair
You can always tell a Kurt Vile track when you hear one. He starts with an idea – one simple chord cycle – and plays it over and over, weighed down by reverb, like rings from a drop of water moving out across a pool. On his best songs that restraint creates its own rhythm: ‘He’s Alright’, from 2009’s ‘Childish Prodigy’ did more with four chords on an acoustic guitar than most bands do with four members. ‘Peeping Tom’, from 2011’s ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’, repeats the trick with picked split chords.
He’s honed his style over the years, practising on a porch in his hometown of Philadelphia, letting his hair grow long as he plays those simple lines again and again until every note falls perfectly in time. He started a band in 2005, The War On Drugs, but left after one album. It took him two solo albums on tiny indie labels (2008’s ‘Constant Hitmaker’ and 2009’s ‘God Is Saying This To You…’), and another two on Matador (‘Childish Prodigy’ in 2009, ‘Smoke Ring For My Halo’ in 2011), for him to nail his sound, even if the songs weren’t always there. On weak tracks, Kurt struggled to make those guitar lines say something before the rings hit the shore.
For ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’, his third album on Matador, Kurt turns his attention to writing proper songs. The album is bookended by two monster tracks that each hover around the 10-minute mark. Neither track loses direction. Every bit of closer ‘Goldtone’ sounds considered: the steam-whistle of airy backing vocals, slivers of slide guitar and glinting steel strings slip in and out. A younger Kurt Vile might have ended up with something sludgier and less effective, like his 2011 song ‘Puppet To The Man’.
His attention to detail makes the album’s many styles easier to understand. ‘KV Crimes’ marries Kurt’s slacker vocal with a rock-steady beat full of space – not something you’d usually associate with his music. ‘Pure Pain’ moves between open tuning set to straight 4/4 rhythms and the dreamy shuffle of compound time, and ends up completely glorious.
There’s also clarity in the lyrics – some of his most direct yet. In ‘Never Run Away’, Vile finds comfort in marriage, even as he struggles with commitment. ‘Shame Chamber’ explores the guilt that sees him turn away from his reflection in the mirror, while in ‘Too Hard’ he writes about facing his problems, or at least giving it a try. “Comes a time in every man’s life when he’s gotta take hold of the hand that ain’t his,
but it is”, he reflects.
Mostly, ‘Wakin On A Pretty Daze’ shows Kurt Vile’s determination to make something of that slice of genius he got for free. ‘Was All Talk’ lays it bare: “There was a time in my life when they thought I was all talk”, he sings. “Now I got the upper hand”.