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October 28, 2015

TEST SPIN: Kurt Vile — b’lieve i’m goin down

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By MAX VAN ZILE

Kurt Vile is an acoustic guitar-wielding loner on his new album b’lieve i’m goin down; a subdued, confessional and ultimately enjoyable listen. His music cultivates a relaxed and reflective vibe: the stuff of long car trips and late-night conversations; the slow pulse of Vile’s sound evoking the view through a rearview mirror. It sounds like it was recorded in his bedroom

packshot-1The lyrics read like journal entries. This should be regarded as a strength. b’lieve i’m goin down is about solitude, alienation and introspection: Vile sets the tone on the tightly written opener, “Pretty Pimpin,”  when he sings, “I woke up this morning / Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror.” On “I’m An Outlaw,” he aligns himself thematically with country legends like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, singing “I’m an outlaw on the brink of self-implosion” over a banjo groove. His best lyrics are sincere, memorable and distinctive, and he sees himself in the role of outsider, making music for himself and himself only.

Sonically, the album consists of mid-tempo guitar jams anchored by Vile’s distinctive Philly twang. His singing is loose and relaxed, often only tangentially related to the rhythm of the music beneath. This is the style Vile perfected on 2009’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, and though he’s added new elements, his sound is still based on the same tenets. b’lieve i’m goin down recalls the quiet, reflective music of long-haired rock poets of the 1960s and 70s, like Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

Too often, the songs on b’lieve i’m goin down devolve into formless jams. This is the case on the too-long “Wheelhouse” and “Stand Inside.” Five albums in, Vile continues to streamline his sound, however — if it could use refining. To be blunt, all the songs on the album sound the same.

The album’s best moments, therefore, are those that integrate new elements into the mix: the piano-led cadences of “Lost my Head there,” for instance, in which Vile’s voice harmonizes nicely with the piano’s melody in the verses, or the creaky instrumental waltz of “Bad Omens.” As an artist, he compares unfavorably to, say, Beck, who hit this same note on Sea Change but, who has had the chops and vision to expand and diversify his sound. By comparison, Vile’s palette is limited.

b’lieve i’m goin down moves forward at the pace of a meandering shuffle. Its musical themes often repeat themselves; “Kidding Around” even sounds like an tangent of Vile’s “Peeping Tomboy.” But once the listener acclimates to the peaceful feel, this album reveals itself to be meaningful and even moving.

This record, like Smoke Ring For My Halo, is more than the sum of its parts. The more attention that the listener pays to Vile’s elliptical lyrics, the more resonant b’lieve i’m goin down becomes. Though it risks getting bogged down in finger-picked repetition, as a suite the songs on this record are generally effective and by the end of “Wild Imagination” Vile’s bemused take on life beocmes endearing.

In a world in which most songs are heard in the context of playlists rather than albums, Kurt Vile is both an anomaly and a throwback: His music is best when experienced over a long period of time. Though there’s certainly nothing wrong with his choice not to engage the contemporary sounds of his peers, this choice casts him squarely in the role of vintage rather than visionary. Likewise, by including so many long, insular jams rather than indulging what pop instincts he has, Vile limits the scope of both his possible fanbase and his artistic achievement. b’lieve i’m goin down is therefore a success, but only on its own terms, and it’s unlikely to catapult Kurt Vile to stardom.

Recommended for indie fans and long-haul truckers.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mfv23@cornell.edu.

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