Venturing inside Kurt Vile’s head is, at the very least, usually an interesting experience. The Philly singer/song writer (and former The War on Drugs guitarist) uses a vast folk and classic rock backdrop to dispense his not so articulate forays into the conscious and subconscious. His lo-fi techniques are well documented and, much to his credit, their machinations (or lack thereof) generally add a vulnerability and terse honesty to the overall aesthetic.
It’s not science, but there is something artistically dense at work in just about all of Vile’s solo releases that has always hinted at equal parts smirking wit, stoned jubilation, and empty bitterness. That these elements generally never coalesce in a typically cohesive way is oddly a strength, and one of the reasons why Kurt Vile is so fascinating as an artist. You never quite know where he is going, and, usually, you get the feeling that he doesn’t either.
Smoke Ring For My Halo is Vile’s fourth solo release, and perhaps his most insulated. He’s playing on his team all alone, but he never seems to glance at the score. All throughout the LP, Vile will unload wry truths that are as succinct as they are incendiary, but has an effortless flow back into the laid back slacker posturing that anchors some of his more apparent histrionics. Not surprisingly, this blend of sentiment and ambivalence carries over into the album’s sonic properties, creating a sort of scattered but unique existence.
Vile’s use of winding rhythms and noisy terrains has a way of making something tangible out of something kind of formless. Hardly an ingenious feat, but the patient calculation in the compositions makes the lack of harmony striking, and purposeful. Whether it’s the fuzz-laden acoustic strumming on album opener “Baby’s Arms” with it’s ghostly electronics; or the satirical Springsteen aping on the mid-tempo throw-back “Society is My Friend,” it’s hard to find an apparent common thread, save for maybe the narrator’s general malaise.
“I wanna sing at the top of my lungs/ For fun/ Scream annoyingly/ Cuz it’s just me being me/ Being free,” Vile confesses during “On Tour.” It’s one of the album’s most vibrant tracks, and accomplishes this vibrancy slyly, through layering its sound typically, building towards a crescendo that never occurs. Coupled with the song’s sardonic wit, it provides a comfortably accurate snapshot of what Vile is actually striving to achieve. Later he admits, “I’m just playin’/ I’ve got it made/ …Most of the time.”
Though they are unquestionable, Vile’s musical abilities are scattershot and remarkably enticing–if not wholly unpredictable. There’s never a specific groove that Smoke Ring For My Halo aims for, and Vile is able to bypass a lot of typical labeling in the process. The folk-rock, Neil Young feel to tracks like the surprisingly crushing “Ghost Town,” or even the eponymous “Smoke Ring For My Halo” finds Vile effortlessly blending the more comfortable components of the tracks with his typically indiscernible lyricism. It’s like he’s having a staring contest with you and really has no intention of blinking any time soon.
While there has never really been anything direct about what Kurt Vile does, he has been able to create a singular identity for himself through the kind of authentic demeanor that’s never communicated as artificial as it could be. In that respect, Smoke Ring For My Halo is no different. Though it may seem like Vile tends to waver on just how he wants to be perceived, the lack of commitment is nothing if not intensely deliberate. The more impressive trick that he pulls off is having the ability to do this and not come across as mocking or snarky in tone. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s almost as if he doesn’t know how to care.
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