Album Review: Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

[Matador; 2013]

For 10 years, Philadelphia native Kurt Vile exploited the smallness in his songwriting process. With the exception of his work with fellow philadelphian psych outfit, The War on Drugs, Vile dealt largely in quiet, often acoustic guitar-led works, heavy on reverb-laden delirium. God Is Saying This To You feels like a memory, recycled lyrics and all; it’s the haze of moments long past just barely out of reach. Even in his more fuzzed out moments, as on Childish Prodigy, these tracks were taut affairs, near krauty jams that aimed for the infinitesimal rather than the infinite. But Smoke Ring For My Halo was, in many ways, a coming out party. Even on the ballads, Vile aimed bigger. Rambling 12-string guitars attempt to overwhelm rather than sneak their way in the backdoor. For the first time Vile made a play for attention rather than maintaining the status quo as the mumbley long-haired troubadour slinking his way through the room.

So with Wakin On A Pretty Daze Vile has chosen to bask in the attention, trading in the little ephemeral details of albums past for panoramic folk rock, as ambitious in its scope as its many six minute-plus songs may suggest. He’s as wryly expressive as ever (is there really a recent lyric more poignant than the title tracks anecdote about cell phone suicide?), but he seems less content to be pigeonholed as your friendly neighborhood shaggy-stoner-slacker figure.

As he makes his way through “Goldtone”‘s narcotized meander, he pauses to note, “Sometimes when I get in my zone/You’d think I was stoned/But I never, as they say/’Touch the stuff’.” Even in the midst of his most labyrinthine, hazy, xylophone-coated moment on this new record, Vile wants you to be sure that, no, as much as his locks and mutterings might suggest something of his persona, he’s gotten to this point through staying awake even when he “hibernates.” Though he waits to the end of this record to make this proclamation, in the preceding material the sentiment almost goes without saying.

Smoke Ring For My Halo‘s singles, however ascendant, still had this sense of closeness, likely due to his reliance on the relatively narrow sonic palette that marked his career. Vile’s moving outward here, putting more work into the songwriting, but more importantly varying up the actual elements that compose his highway rock. “Was All Talk” makes room in its acoustic motorik for synthetic hisses and pops. “Girl Called Alex”‘s slow burn bends and teases smokey electric guitar through its slight, demure build. “Never Run Away” sneaks in brief, distant swells of pedal steel in the midst of its serpentine arpeggios. Even compared to those gathered on Smoke Ring For My Halo these are tracks of substance, weight, and careful construction.

But it’s not just Vile’s delivery and drawl that conjure those droopy eyed conceptions. For all the intense work that no doubt went into capturing Wakin On A Pretty Daze‘s newly widescreen sonics, the moments that manage to make it special still feel so entirely off the cuff. The way he turns a simple “amen” into seven searching syllables, or the subtle arch of his flanged acoustic guitar leads on “Snowflakes Are Dancing,” regardless of the effort he poured into it it feels effortless.

You don’t build a career on bong rips and six-packs on your front porch, at least not the career that Kurt Vile seems to be headed toward. The lyrical shout-out to Bruce Springsteen at the tail end of “Snowflakes Are Dancing” tips his hand a little bit. Bruce made a career out of making 3 hour shows look like cakewalks and Vile, similarly, is getting to a point where masterfully constructed double LPs seem like they come without as much as a sweaty brow. Don’t blame them for calling him a stoner, he’s done a pretty good job hiding how hard he tries. With any luck, Wakin On A Pretty Daze will go down as a document to the workman he really is.