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Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo

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Artist: Kurt Vile

Album: Smoke Ring for My Halo

Label: Matador

Review date: Mar. 8, 2011

Kurt Vile’s success has been built on self-anointment. He’s a constant hitmaker. A childish prodigy. A hunchback (not normally something you go tell on the mountain, but in this case he’s got a “humpback as big as a whale”). He’s proven that relentless home recording can yield treasure more often than not. This gambit of unrelenting expansion has not only paid off by thrusting him into an ever-broadening spotlight; it’s also made him an important songwriter for this day and age.

The program changed a bit with last year’s Square Shells EP. As artists are wont to do on minor releases, Vile’s writing went in two directions: the first on a rocket ship pointed straight at the outer reaches, and the other inward. Introspection and even doubt began to creep in, from the sense of incompleteness on “Losing Momentum (for Jim Jarmusch)” to the past tense of “I Wanted Everything.”

There was also, for the first time, a feeling of unqualified contentment, on “I Know I Got Religion.” It possessed the same songwriterliness as my perennial favorites “My Sympathy” and “Overnite Religion,” but stripped to its bare basics. Whatever religion Vile had found, it was soothing for both of us.

This reduction — or refinement — in scale is where Smoke Ring for My Halo picks up, reconciling Square Shells‘ seemingly conflicting tendencies in the least forceful, most nuanced Kurt Vile production yet. To call this album self-effacing doesn’t go far enough: it is a diminishing act.

Having completed the transition to the fullest fidelity available, the options open up for Vile and his Violators. This seems at odds with this album’s scaled-back feel, but “Baby’s Arms” shows that in the place of breadth, these songs choose depth. One of the greatest strengths of previous records has been the self-reflexivity that takes place within Vile’s oeuvre, verses returning to previous points via circuitous routes that turn riffs and lyrics into Moebius strips. Here, it’s not just the looped nature of the primitivist chord progressions, but also the retreat further and further into both the metaphor and the song. It’s hard to tell who is playing the child and who the protector at any given time. Sometimes, he’ll “shrink myself just like a Tom Thumb / and hide in my baby’s hands,” and sometimes, “there’s been but one true love in my baby’s arms / and I got the hands to hold on to them.” Like an Escher painting, the logic is impossible, even as the direction become endless. There are a seemingly infinite number of points of reflection.

Let’s call it a fractal song, one of the simplest and most ambitious innovations that first endeared me to Kurt Vile. “Red Apples” on God is Saying This to You was one of his first songs to do this, so its only right that, in typical fashion, a newly recycled version would be perfected here as “Runner Ups.” The centerpiece, and the entrance to the wormhole connecting the two songs across more than two years, is the elemental-to-the-point-of-inscrutable line that could have been cribbed from William Carlos Williams: “Two packs of red apples / for the long ride home.” A large portion of both the lyrics and the country twang are shared, except the manic quality of the original is replaced with a more pensive sense of settling here. Best friends have disappeared, hence the need for runner-ups. Yet there’s a sense that it’s going to be okay. That comforting sentiment might be the most revelatory part of his Halo: This might be the first time that Vile has offered his truly sincere sympathy, but more importantly, required some in return.

At their best, these songs hardly resemble standard rock, or folk, or even pop fare. Those moments that sound most conventional are also the least notable. Vile is not a very convincing extrovert, so I’m not sure who he is trying to impress on the higher energy “Society is My Friend” or even “Jesus Fever.” Even at his punkest, on “Puppet to the Man,” he just doesn’t seem like the kind of a guy made for taking a stand, a failure that might, in fact, be part of the whole point.

It’s on “On Tour,” maybe the most moving song of any of his albums, that Vile is most lucid, and at times evokes the specter of a different Kurt at his most unplugged. “I see through everyone / even my own self now,” Vile murmurs, letting the last of any pretense or posturing drop away fully. “I wanna write my whole life down / burn it down to the ground,” he goes on, pushing diminishment to its extreme, before letting loose with the most unguarded statement of his career: “I wanna sing at the top of my lungs for fun / scream annoyingly ‘cause that’s just me being me / being free.”

In the end, Smoke Ring for My Halo is not necessarily for us. It’s not about putting on the hits. In fact, it’s not about putting on anything. It’s about the person, and not the concept. Such a change after so much focused mythmaking is not just artistically difficult, it’s courageous. I’m more than happy to take this album as it is, blemishes and all.

By Evan Hanlon

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