Kurt Vile has never been one to insist on his music, or anything, really. To promote “Never Run Away”, a single from Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, he took out an ad and used it to play the song off his record player, mumbling in the background while it played, chatting idly with his daughter as she waltzed in and out of the room, and smiling at the camera with a sense of open disinterest. Was this really worth it, he read in the viewer’s eyes, but in typical Vile response, it was a question that earned little more than a shrug. He isn’t about testing the water. During the video, he asked his daughter what she thought of the song, and the response he deciphered – before dismissing it completely – was a vague sense of Shit’s Okay.
Vile separated his music further from its full force in that video, but it was a compelling ad, showing us how little stock he put in his song’s purest states; like “Freak Train” and its cut-for-size video release, “Never Run Away” was advertised in the living room, where it’s likely to get played, struggling for the limelight amongst trivial distractions that Vile was making himself. That’s how you’re going to hear Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, as a muffled conversation played out with no resolution, nor in want of one.
And that’s how to read Kurt Vile Theory. Months ago, when he begrudgingly took to Twitter as part of another promo job, he didn’t care about (at the time of writing he’s sent 26 inconspicuous tweets, most of which do their job with a disappearing air), he ended up fighting with fellow ‘slacker’ bands about his disregarding, unreachable philosophy. “Did I hear that Kurt Vile’s great song ‘Baby’s Arms’ was in a Bank of America commercial? If so, man, that’s #SHITLIST if anything ever was,” tweeted Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles, incredulous about the corporate caging of a meaningful indie rock song. Vile’s response was admirable, if aloof, and probably said more for the affections of the song than Stickles “great” appraisal. Vile gave a list of financial reasons before throwing out the kicker: “I never cared about that sorta thing.” That’s the mark of a musician fond of his song, knowing no big thing can take it away from him, nor re-contextualise, or even understand. Again, Vile didn’t really give a shit what was going on. The song already existed to him, and he didn’t need to refuse anyone it, as “Baby’s Arms” didn’t need tying up.
But even a shrug is toxic for an artist, and in this era of the sincere song, or at least irony-weary one, it only serves to misremember Vile, pushing him into a corner he doesn’t want to be in. He’s either revered or blamed for being the opposite of a shit-giver, and on records like Smoke Ring For My Halo, he’s known to be happy writing a song that aims to be just okay, or just pretty. Vile has duality as a musician who has troubles but secretly has none. On Smoke Ring’s “On Tour”, he admits “I’ve got it made”, pauses, and adds, “most of the time”, before embarking on one of his carefree miasmic jams. It’s easy to misunderstand this as non-committal songwriting, but that’s something Vile doesn’t want us to see in him. And so it’s relieving to me that Vile uses “Goldtone”, the end of Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze’s long winding road, to defend himself against these allegations. Half of them are true, he says, but that isn’t a bad thing; “Sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned / but I never, as they say, touch that stuff.”
Disengagement is something Vile sentimentalises. He’s romantic about his ability to be less than magnificent, because what does magnificent even mean? To be poised, maybe? That’s not Vile’s game, but his is no less important. “I might be adrift, but I’m still alert,” he retorts, “concentrating my hurt into a goldtone.” Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze is no less “adrift” than any of his other records, but it’s not an album of just. It’s a record he’s crafted immaculately, and then hung behind for. Vile’s defensive on “Goldtone” reminds me of the vexed slacker he was on “Peeping Tomboy”, torn between a day of the same old nothing and the appeal of a boxy, soulless job. The two sides mean nothing to him. He’s in search of the sweet middle spot, nameless and in-between the side he’s on and the side he’s rejected; “I don’t wanna change but I don’t wanna stay the same,” he said, trying to work out where and how these records meant something. For all its ambiguity it was the clearest explanation of Vile we got, and while his admission on “Goldtone” is similar, it’s self-satisfying, driving less candidly to a confession and more towards himself.
As usual, Vile’s music is about despondency, and the correlation between the two sides of a conversation we make up. “Comes a time in every man’s life where he’s gotta take hold of the hand that isn’t his, but it is,” he sings in one of many overlong thoughts on “Too Hard”, but it sounds like his own reminder. It’s a lesson Vile’s teaching himself. This is how Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze plays. It doesn’t wring its melodies as transparently as Smoke Ring, removing itself from the clear-thinking chill-out vibe that lent Vile a breakout album. The diverse sound here makes for an off-handed, often aggressive record, delivering its long, slithering conclusions after bold, straddling moments or unconventional rock experiments. This is Vile’s longest album in part because he’s impatient, often beginning his songs with an intent gaze, such as on “Pure Pain”, and then winding them down with airy guitar interludes once he can’t keep eye contact any longer. “Pure Pain” and “Never Run Away” are real offenders. They catch off guard, but it’s not something Vile can commit entirely to, singing with an immediate, priming lyric, then settling down with one of his beautified guitar settings.
On “Too Hard”, Vile gives himself an abundance of time to sketch out his shrugging vision, taking one of his lackadaisical motifs and dismantling it. “Take your time, so they say, and that’s probably the best way to be” is a lyric typical of him, one that rattles around in his mind and then transforms itself around the sly twists of his song. Vile spends a lot of time building up his world and then letting it derail in his own way, with his own kind of dramatic malaise. He’s been doing it his way for a while, and now he’s learned to be a brighter, more playful songwriter with it. “Shame Chamber”, one of the album’s shortest tracks, begins raucously but becomes one of his lightest, breeziest songs ever, its choruses inflected with a yelp the most celebratory – and the most spirited – he’s ever been. Vile invites a sense of excitement on Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, encouraged to try new things (playing a jam like an early Neil Young workout on “KV Crimes”), or just old things again, like reintroducing his secret abiding love of drum machines on “Was All Talk”.
Vile sounds refreshed on some of these songs, made new again, and while that’s invigorating to see in a career that’s harvested so much from alleged indifference, a brighter songwriting style gives Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze a surprisingly conflicted sound. I probably want to like it more than I actually do, feeling cut off by a physical immediacy on songs hard to take in on a first go around, and an inherent cosiness to the more typical Vile jams. It’s understandable, really, because he’s never going to make a record with a particular work ethic. He’s always going to be the “Peeping Tomboy” guy who wants to be different people at different times. He’ll want to make music that could come from no where or else make it woozily, like it’s always existed. This isn’t his clearest work, nor is it his most pretty, but it’s easy to identify him as he looks inward, to see the songwriter who wants to make five different types of music. That’s easy to identify with, and it’s the appeal of his music. “Baby’s Arms” shouldn’t be on Patrick Stickle’s #SHLITLIST. That would misunderstand where Vile is coming from when he invites us to use his song, to put it on the player and speak through it. It’s not that he couldn’t care less. It’s just hard to know how, sometimes.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.