Kurt Vile has woken up on yet another pretty daze and he doesn’t recognize the man in the mirror, or at least so begins his sixth studio album B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down. But hey, that new guy in the mirror wearing his clothes looks “Pretty Pimpin.” It’s a fitting metaphor for Vile’s new LP. Rest assured, Vile has maintained his easygoing brand of breezy folk-rock and foolish philosophy, but his songwriting exhibits a precision and directness not seen on previous releases. He’s sharpened up, grown up, and yet the song remains the same. It all makes for a melancholy sense of bemusement — much like the bashful irony of a country-rock singer who entitles a song of self-discovery “Pretty Pimpin’”.
Thank heavens this album has arrived just in time for some autumnal contemplation. The arrangements strike a stirring balance between intimate and sweeping — as on the Nick Drake-esque “Stand Inside”, where a primary focus on dizzying finger-picking is occasionally subsumed under a quiet storm of piano chords. “Kidding Around” slowly builds with wildwood abandon, bringing in spectral falsetto and swirling cymbals that could perfectly score any red-orange walk through the woods. And then there’s the aforementioned jangly “Pretty Pimpin” and hooky “Dust Bunnies”, easily the most commercial-friendly tracks Vile has ever put out, and given his songwriting gifts, they’re unsurprisingly two of the record’s best.
Vile’s role as goofy philosopher savant remains a crucial component of his aesthetic, as he casually tosses off wisdom and nonsense in equal measures. Over the punchy banjo backdrop of “I’m An Outlaw”, Vile muses “I’m an outlaw / on the brink of self-implosion / alone in a crowd.” A quiet storm rages inside Vile, and yet at other moments he appears entirely serene — his lyrical oxymorons representative of his greater self. His reflection reaches its apex on the gorgeously stunning “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say)”, six minutes of “Fire and Rain”-channeling beauty where Vile incoherently waxes poetic like a drunken cowboy sitting around a desert fire. The track grows deeply arresting and quietly epic as Vile wonders “I guess Hell has finally frozen over” as his romantic life collapses around him. With music this warm and inviting, though, it doesn’t seem to be bothering him too much.
With his former band the War On Drugs, Vile shares a penchant for extended codas and jam sessions. Only one track falls below the four-minute mark, and four of B’lieve’s tracks exceed the six-minute mark, coasting often purely on instrumentals. Much like his plaintive vocal delivery, Vile’s musical direction still seems to drift in and out of focus throughout the album, and so too eventually will that of the listener. The ambling “All in a Daze Work”, its rolling guitar coda cresting and dipping like a drive through the country, is simultaneously engulfing and impossible to recall. “Lost My Head There” exhibits some sly soul with a jaunty piano hook and subtle backing vocals before similarly conceding to predictable rambling. None of it is unpleasant — quite the opposite actually — and surely Vile’s fans will know by now that clarity and conciseness should not be the paramount expectation. While B’lieve won’t always command attention, that’s part of what makes it such a pleasant experience — Vile freely expresses himself without demanding anything in return.
Closer “Wild Imagination” perfectly distills the emotional flux at play in B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down as Vile sings, “I’m laughing out loud, so much it appears I’m crying a bit.” Vile’s music is deeply emotionally evocative, inviting the listener to use their own wild imagination to dissect the shades of joy, sadness, and confusion dotting Vile’s portrait. Vile almost feels the need to apologize for such befuddling ambiguity, professing “I’m afraid that I’m feeling so many feelings simultaneously at such a rabid clip.” He has absolutely nothing to apologize for — that’s life, though. B PLUS