“I don’t want to work but I don’t want to sit around all day frowning,” Kurt Vile claims on “Peeping Tomboy.” You kind of get the feeling that, despite his intentions, he probably will spend the day sitting around frowning. Vile’s lack of ambition and despondency is inescapable on his latest offering, Smoke Ring for My Halo. That’s not to say the record itself lacks ambition, far from it; production-wise, this is Vile’s most ambitious album to date. It’s just the sentiment he throws around throughout most of it is a general malaise. Despite his mood — or maybe because of it — SRFMH is thoroughly engaging and enjoyable from start to finish.
Smoke Ring for My Halo is definitely rooted in the alternative era, but rather than come off as a carbon-copy of any specific artists, Vile cherry-picks hallmarks of the genre in its many incarnations and creates his own palette. For instance, “Jesus Fever” is a lush, pastoral folk song reminiscent of the Feelies circa The Good Earth or perhaps Out of Time-era R.E.M., but the lethargic vocal stylings are more akin to J. Mascis. “In My Time” is an exquisite reconfiguration of something poppier a la the Sundays or the Lemonheads, complete with guitar solo. At times there is a bluesiness to his voice similar to former Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan. And while it may sound like a game of spot the influence, Vile injects enough of his own personality into SRFMH to where nothing ever feels like a retread of the past. And although the album was recorded in three different studios, it’s a very cohesive listen.
The instrumental backdrops that Vile and his band the Violators create, whether stripped down or elaborate, dabbling in psych rock or folk, always feel complete and let at least a sliver of light through. He may admit that he “may never leave the couch again” or remind himself that, “I know when I get older, I’m dying anyway,” but the beauty in his music is always peeking through. And never does Vile allow his dejection to stoop to self-pity. Most of his ponderings are listless and lethargic expressions of a man trying to work through his own internal doubts in order to make some sense of them, using his wry sense of humor to bring levity to his uncertainties. The pleasurable finger picking work and graceful, wistful arrangements serve to comfort the listener like a pillow to rest his or her weary head on and resign.
Smoke Ring for My Halo is a deeply personal album containing a lot of beauty. Wisely, Vile doesn’t get bogged down by wordiness but gives the instruments plenty of space to do the talking, and most of the time they feel ultimately hopeful. When he is singing, his winding melodies are contagious. So even if you aren’t quite in the same place Vile is, it’s hard not to be drawn into these songs — perhaps because we’ve all been there at some point, but more likely because they’re so well written.
Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand
Dinosaur Jr. – Where You Been
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes
Stream: Kurt Vile – “Jesus Fever”