This publication missed Kurt Vile’s excellent Smoke Ring for My Halo when it came out in March. But now that Kurt’s got an EP coming out, I figure it’s as good a time as any to review the album.
The cover of the forthcoming EP, So Outta Reach, shows a bunch of different shots of an unkempt Kurt Vile asleep sitting up in a big armchair at some party, and in each picture somebody has their arm around him and is smiling at the camera. Your first reaction is laughter, but there’s a certain seriousness to the title that makes you unsure. Certainly the songs on Smoke Ring for My Halo suggest a guy sleepwalking through life. In fact, on the final track, “Ghost Town,” Kurt sings, “It’s all right to peel myself up sleepwalking / in a ghost town / Think I’ll never leave my couch again / ’cause when I’m out I’m only in my mind.” Sleepwalking in a ghost town is a perfect image for a guy who says he can “see through everyone, even my own self.”
Kurt Vile’s spaced-out music, drenched in reverb heightens the effect of separation. It’s as though there were a membrane over whatever it is Kurt’s feeling or trying to tell us. Not only that, but he seems torn as to whether he even wants to say what he’s thinking, often saying dark and immediately countering it with some self-effacing joke. For example, in “On Tour,” Kurt sings, “I wanna write my whole life down / burn it down to the ground,” but goes on to laugh, “Nah, I’m just playing, / I got it made”–and then adding uncertainly after a pause, “Most of the time.” It’s like something is holding him back, making him play down his feelings.
Lyrically the album packs a punch. Kurt’s imagery is personal and dark. But because of the casual way it’s delivered, it comes off more as a prolonged whatever than some attempt at profound insight. It’s much better that way. As it is, listening to the album is like talking to some apathetic friend who’s lost his way, come unattached from the earth and started floating around aimlessly. But if Kurt took the songs more seriously, listening to the album might have been like talking to some insufferable know-it-all who was trying to convince you his feelings were mega important.
The album is not perfect. “Puppet to the Man” and “Society Is My Friend,” both the album’s heaviest songs and also the only ones not about him, are a drag. Since “the man” and “society” are two things people love to stick it to, it’s like Kurt Vile’s gotta get those out of the way before he can keep going with the rest of the album. He does give both themes sort of an original spin, I guess, since in “The Man” he readily admits that he’s a puppet to the man, and in “Society” he seems to lose focus before he can even get to his message. All the same, the tracks feel perfunctory, and stick out from the rest of the album.
But overall, it’s an excellent listen, one of the year’s best. As on the cover of So Outta Reach, there’s an ambiguity to it: underneath the casualness, how serious is he about the emptiness, the detachment, even at times what seems like suicidality? Thematically, that’s what’s cool about it, but the best thing is the music and the way he sings.