To survey the remarkable career of Kurt Vile is to marvel at the multi-band rainbow of murk. Who knew that there were so many ways to warp, melt, muddle, cloud, gelatinize, nauseate, gasify, skew, saturate, poison and pollute the core sounds of indie rock? It has been a very long time since lo-fi was about not knowing any better, or about the scarcity of affordable recording gear, or about the democratization of production. For Vile, whose first album, Constant Hitmaker, came out in 2008 – more than 20 years after Guided by Voices were releasing their early cassettes with a straight face – lo-fi is nothing less than an intention, a free-standing aesthetic, and not even an especially primitive one. These sounds are beautiful and not easy.
As further evidence of how high lo-fi has fallen in his hands, Kurt Vile can really play. No matter how damaged the production, it can’t obscure the sheer competency and versatility of his guitar. Sometimes he jangles with an offhand Baroque precision. Sometimes he stacks the slabs of sludge and fuzz like someone trying to outdo J. Mascis. Sometimes he fairly dazzles with his fingerpicking: a delicate, blues-free cascade that sounds like British folk denuded of its finer tensions and resolutions by a stoned Phillip Glass.
His poetry is the poetry of professional slack and an executive policy of indifference. It’s about not caring with an almost-OCD focus and drive, and about catching glimpses of heart and of heartbreak in the cracks. It’s also an urban mood index. Sometimes he’s really down, and all that he can see is the filth around him. Sometimes he’s light, graced and untouchable (and not necessarily even high); sometimes he is in love – and that alone is when things get tricky.
Through it all, his words and his melodies flow with a shambolic grace, like some kind of street-surfing Jack Johnson, only much better. But you just can’t be sure what he means and whether he means it. You can’t be sure whether he is winking or just nodding off when he sings:
It’s just another day in the shame chamber
Living life to the lowest power
Feeling bad in the best way a man can
“Shame Chamber” is one of the standout tracks on Vile’s fifth and latest full-length, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. In musical and in lyrical dimensions, this album steps toward commitment; but as the grammatically indifferent title betrays, commitment is a fraught proposition for someone who has made his name cultivating the lack of it. The ambiguity pivots upon the preposition “on.” Is Kurt Vile, the self-described “Childish Prodigy,” waking up in a daze (again), or from one?
Both. The sounds are still warped, but not every sound. A song is more likely to commit to a singular signature weirdness in an otherwise-conventional mix, as opposed to a global policy of weirdification. The lyrics and the delivery are not much changed on the surface; but on a second or third listen to songs like the epic mission statement “Goldtone,” you might think, “By God, he’s actually being not only mature, but even a little didactic!”
It calls to my mind the cautionary example of Stephen Malkmus. Post-pavement, Malkmus learned how to rock in a proper band with the Jicks. In his lyrics, he trained himself to commit to an emotional thrust and to resist his old habits of teasing and undermining everything. And in so doing, he carved his fanbase down to the ardent few who were willing to accept the idea of a competent and mature Stephen Malkmus. Vile, too, might ride this personal and musical growth fresh out of an audience. It’s the ass-backwards success proposition of indie rock – a game that no one has won to date.
But Vile is über-talented. He is the Rocky Balboa, the Philadelphia Chosen One of contemporary indie rock, so I have to give him a fighting chance.
Kurt Vile & the Violators with V B A, Thursday, October 24, 9 p.m., $20/$25, available at Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, Outdated Café in Kingston & online, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; (845) 481-5158, www.bspkingston.com.