Kurt Vile, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Daze’ (Matador)
Release Date: April 9, 2013
Ask any teenager: The first step to being cool is to stop trying to be cool. Or, in the starkly uncool terms of author Malcom Gladwell, “Cool cannot be manufactured, only observed.” So observe it in Kurt Vile, a former forklift driver from Philadelphia who records atmospheric ’70s rock as comforting and off-the-cuff as a yawn. In plain English he sings about his thoughts, his worries, his late-night walks through an empty city, his life. “I guess” is a phrase you hear a lot in his songs, which don’t seem to start as much as wake up in the middle of themselves, grinning.
Does he sweat as he rocks? Does his pulse ever quicken? To these questions, a new song called “Was All Talk” offers some kind of answer: “Making music is easy.” Then, against a brisk drum-machine beat and ebb tide of guitar that dissolves beautifully into mist, he whispers, “Watch me.”
Of course, making music is not easy. Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile’s fifth album, is the product of both thought and effort. That it feels like it took neither thought nor effort is a product of talent. Most of its songs are long, and the best run for nearly 10 minutes, cycling, repeating, and folding back into themselves like Möbius strips. Their sound is smooth, clear, and continuous — not radically different from his earlier albums, but more refined. This is music with its edges softened and proportions gently distorted, like an image reflected in water. Even acoustic guitars — the ones that suggest Vile is a man alone in a room — shimmer and bubble with effects.
His best lines sound less like they’ve been written and more like they’ve drifted in from conversation or private thought. “Sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned,” he murmurs on “Goldtone.” “But I never, as they say, touch the stuff.” Like Bob Dylan, he is irreverent without apology, wise without warning. “If it ain’t workin’, take a whiz on the world,” goes one line from 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo; seconds later, with his hurt buried in a deep, flat baritone, he sings, “My best friend’s gone / But I got… runner-ups.” We all know him: The quiet one who tells a sad, perfect joke when everyone else is speechless.
For all its philosophical shrugging, Daze is not a deadbeat’s guide to easy living but an argument that what looks like easy living usually requires very hard work. “I think about them all the time,” he says of the characters on “Girl Called Alex.” Later, on “Goldtone,” he stays up all night writing, unable to let his mind go. These are self-portraits of the artist as someone who knows inspiration is the least important part of creativity, and that art is more a matter of problem-solving than personal expression.
Earlier, on “Too Hard,” he lays out his ethic: “‘Take your time,’ so they say / And that’s probably the best way to be / But what about those who are fathers, and what about their daughters?” Vile is over 30, with a wife and two children. “Not feelin’ it” means “not eatin’.” When interviewers ask him about smoking weed, he demurs, saying he doesn’t have time for it anymore.
There is something unromantic and ordinary about all this. But like all true psychedelic art, Daze is preoccupied with the ordinary, because it’s the ordinary that connects us, big and small, genius and dope, winner and loser. On “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” Vile pumps Springsteen on his Discman, but the parallel is, at root, a superficial one: Working people in Springsteen’s songs are given the brief and dramatic opportunity to transcend their lives, while people in Vile’s are challenged to the Zen-like task of enjoying their lives as they are. So he tromps through the snow in his puffy coat, synthesizers flurrying all around him, another homesick nobody wearing headphones who knows that as soon as he gets back, he’ll miss being gone.
In its length, Daze finds its unhurried heart. Listening to meditations like “Goldtone,” “Too Hard,” and “Wakin on a Pretty Day” can be like watching a cat in a patch of sunlight. First it just looks pleasant. Then you wonder why it doesn’t get up and do more. Soon you realize that you’re only wondering why it doesn’t get up and do more because the prospect of living life without event makes you anxious as hell. That Vile reaches for a classic-rock sound he probably grew up with only fits: Imagining an exciting new world is easier than settling into the one you already know.
Writing him off as a hippie is both mean and stupid — as though music didn’t offer us the opportunity to get in touch with our quieter, better selves, the ones we struggle to make room for in our daily routines, the ones that would like to set aside the bullshit and take a walk in the park. “Phone ringing off the shelf,” he sings during the first few minutes of Daze. “I guess somebody had something they really wanted to prove to us today.” In his domestic, post-puritanical world, ambition is a good quality, but best served when you don’t make a show of it. Presumably, the phone goes unanswered.