I was reading the latest edition of Uncut last night, as I should, when I came across this quote from Kurt Vile, sat at the bottom of Louis Pattison’s review of “Smoke Ring For My Halo”. “It’s got this kind of wandering, mellow feel,” Vile says of his album. “We recorded a lot of rockers, but they just didn’t seem to fit.”
Listening to “Smoke Ring For My Halo” – and I’ve listened to it a lot, in varying moods, over the last couple of months or so – you can see Vile’s point. More even than his previous records, the whole album feels locked into a hermetically-sealed, tonally consistent space. Vile has always been good at creating and sustaining an atmosphere, and on “Smoke Rings…” he excels himself.
The space in question, to be honest, sounds mighty like his bedroom, even though the production is mostly plusher than before. There has always been something about Vile which makes him seem like a slacker throwback, in spite of his hallucinatory rethinks of Lindsey Buckingham, Tom Petty and so on. He guests on the new J Mascis acoustic album, and generally cultivates a certain not-quite-sure-how-to-get-out-of-bed nonchalance. “Think I’ll never leave my couch again,” he confesses, perhaps unnecessarily, on the closing “Ghost Town”.
A less indulgent way of talking about this sort of thing would be to say that it all sounds the same, of course. But although Vile seems to be operating in an even narrower channel than usual, it’s pretty remarkable how these jangling, insouciant songs, at first hard to distinguish, become memorable. The first half of “Smoke Ring…”, in particular, eventually runs like a sequence of insidious, dazed hits, from the sweetly rippling “Baby’s Arms”, through to the fractionally more wired “Society Is My Friend”.
Also in there is one of Vile’s finest songs, “Jesus Fever”, and another called “On Tour”, with a set of lyrics that capture the spectacularly torpid inanity that musicians, stuck indefinitely in the back of a van, can fall victim to.
The flipside, of course, is that “On Tour” can sound merely inane, and I guess that while “Smoke Ring…” holds an indolent ambience, it can verge on the irritating if you’re not quite in the mood. For all the air of mildly acidic sloppiness, it’s a meticulously orchestrated album, and while Vile might talk of a “wandering feel”, one or two of the songs would benefit from meandering out of their orthodox structure, heading into the more fraught and abstract lo-fi zones of last year’s “Square Shells” EP; there’s nothing here to match the dislocation of “Invisibility: Nonexistent”, for instance.
Maybe, too, by focusing on the dazed troubadour schtick, Vile is hiding away some of his greatest talents. Not only is he good at a certain kind of careering, seething rock’n’roll – like “Freak Train” on his last, more rounded album, “Childish Prodigy” – but you could argue that those rock songs provide a more dramatic and striking context in which to show off the intimacies of his acoustic work. I think this one is out any day now, so perhaps you have different takes on it?