The opening track on Kurt Vile’s sixth album B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down, “Pretty Pimpin’” is such a perfect distillation of his ethos, and that of the album: self-doubt, determination and bittersweet humor. He looks in a mirror and wonders who he’s looking at, doesn’t recognize himself. He ponders the person whose teeth he’s brushing, wonders who the fool is, recognizes the clothes he’s wearing and decides he looks good, adopting a silly new catchphrase of self-motivation: telling himself he’s “pretty pimpin’”.
That’s one of the album’s more light-hearted moments, though Vile’s never far from humor, always wrapped up in a certain rock ‘n’ roll ‘cool’ swagger that itself is funny and a bit of a put-on. By put-on, I don’t mean “ironic pose” and I’m not suggesting that inauthenticity is a problem with his music. His goofs and shrugs are at the heart of his worldview, and can occur simultaneously with an emotional expression listeners would hear as “heartfelt”. That’s actually the crux of this album; he makes an argument (he wouldn’t call it an argument, of course) that a laugh and cry, a who-cares and an I-care-very-much can be one and the same.
B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down is, as the title maybe indicates, more of an overt “downer” album. He’s got heavy things on his mind, and many of them focus on his mind itself, on figuring out what’s going on, where he is in life and why. The first few songs roll along in a fairly rollicking way; it’s the fourth song “That’s Life Tho (Almost Hate to Say)” that first stops you in your tracks, first with its pretty tone of piano and guitar and then with the transitions from self-deprecating description of a night on the town to a fancy of wandering by a highway in the Midwest and encountering scorpions (?!?) and then on to memories of a friend who passed away, “a big ol’ hearted man that we all put on a pedestal”. He concludes, “That’s life though / so sad so true”, in the same potential joking way as usual, but it hits.
(If the evoking of a dead friend makes you think of Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, which makes you think of Mark Kozelek’s silly “feud” with the War on Drugs, which makes you remember Vile was once in that band… I forgive you. I did the same. Forget about it and get back to the music)
From “That’s Life Tho” on, there are a lot of these dreamy tracks where the atmosphere feels like a painful sort of life stasis. “Wheelhouse” is a great, eerie one, but I’m especially fond of “Life Like This”, where piano again (it’s an important differentiating instrument for the album) makes an appearance to move the song along in a sort of cyclical motion that’s echoed through his echoed vocals. He gets in a groove of sorts which some gorgeous electric guitar floats on top of, or behind of, and then disappears as he keeps moving onward, taunting us a bit to consider what the life of this would-be celebrity is really like.
Where the last album, 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze, opened and closed with 10-minute daydreaming epics, on this new one he seems to have made a concerted effort to reel things in, to focus on pinning down some particular feelings in the songs. That paring-down applies to the music too. That he keeps things simple doesn’t mean they’re ordinary or uninteresting. He’ll bring the focus onto a banjo and a drum pattern, for example, or sing rather beautifully over just a couple instruments grooving together, as on “Lost My Head There”. That song’s six minutes—that the album overall feels streamlined doesn’t mean there aren’t still five- or six-minute songs that comfortably ride a groove longer than “necessary”.
That’s part of Kurt Vile’s way actually, doing what feels right to him, not following what might be expected. B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down is a quietly unexpected album. It feels very much like another Kurt Vile album, but close listening—or even not that close—will reveal some serious blues and some complicated dealing with it. His apparent slacker ways disguise a masterly carefulness: intuitive more than intellectual, perhaps, but no less powerful.
The album ends with yet another pristine, uncomplicated number that works as summation of the album’s state of being, its conjoining of the carefree and the anguished. “I’m laughing out loud”, he tells us, “so much it appears that I’m crying a bit….Yes.”