On stage, Kurt Vile can be hidden in plain view. He gazes down at his guitar, hair spilling over his face, letting the music grow around him to fill up the space he’s not moving around in. He’s only hidden so much, though, since he can’t help but constantly give himself away. His voice bellows clear-throated out from behind that curtain of locks, the buzzing tunefulness of his guitar gives out its unique ring and, though you can’t see him smiling over each ragged hook, you know it’s him.
A similar tension rides through his records, and comes together most cohesively on Smoke Ring for My Halo. Vile is once again dealing in tense repetition, building seemingly laid-back compositions into clashing, tangling sonic layers. His songs sway or churn in impressionistic waves, but his guitar playing — punctuated by snapping notes — cuts through the atmosphere with stubborn precision. This sound, dealing in seeming opposites, is more subtle here than his last record, the more hot-blooded Childish Prodigy. If he traded in some of the volume here, however, he got a richer palate of noises in the bargain.
Those opposing elements come out right away on this record. Where Childish Prodigy started with the sinister chug of “Hunchback”, here we get the shimmering acoustics of “Baby’s Arms”. Pastoral notes ripple out and Vile’s voice sighs, but the song never gets fey. Light percussion and spare electronic elements bolt it to the dusty earth, and Vile drops into a rumbling low register in spots, cutting the shine of the song with a light cloud cover. “On Tour” is fittingly weary, and his acoustic guitar has a smudged sound to it, but the lead guitar cuts in with clear, quick riffs to keep the song immediate even as it wanders bleary eyed. There are “Puppet to the Man” and “Society Is My Friend”, which act as the big, bluesy rockers on this record. They never rattle as much as, say, “Freak Train”, but they’ve got their own insistent power. Each thickens up with building guitars, and if they seem spacious at first, they fill to bursting with jagged riffs by their end.
As with his hooks, Vile’s singing also deal in repetition, often establishing a seemingly simply melody and then riffing on it through the song. On Smoke Rings for My Halo, though, the words themselves start to echo the same sort of polar opposites, reversals, and impossible confluences the music itself puts forth. On “Puppet to the Man”, he starts by saying he knows we’re sure he’s assumed that title role, but when we expect him to deny it he counters with, “You best believe that I am.” “Jesus Fever” finds him trying to fix his troubles, but only after it’s too late. “I cleanse myself with vitamins,” he groans. “But I’m already gone.”
Much of the album lives in this limbo between problem and solution. “I don’t want to change, but I don’t want to stay the same,” he claims on the excellent “Peeping Tomboy”, illuminating the deep psychic stuck-ness of the record in one quick line. Even the seemingly sweet “Baby’s Arms”, about finding comfort in someone, is darkened by the idea that he is also hiding from everyone else. Vile has constructed a convincing and often heartbreaking collection — both in the comforting way and in the curl-up-on-the-couch way — about the void between the today you’ve grown weary of and the tomorrow that isn’t here yet, and that may not help anyway. By the time he gets to the brilliant, epic melancholia of “Ghost Town” — his finest, most subtle layering of sounds to date — he has come completely unmoored. “I got a friend, hey wait, where was I? / Well I am trying,” he stumbles out, wandering in a haze through the song even as he threatens to never leave his couch.
On a whole, Smoke Ring for My Halo works because it has both lilting atmosphere and a rumbling, if trudging, pulse. Occasionally, the mix falls a bit off — the light percussion of “Jesus Fever” seems too thin to fully fill out the track, and Vile’s Marr-esque jangling on “Society Is My Friend” feels dated until the other layers flesh it out. When he nails it, though, when all the disparate elements of his sound converge, you realize why he’s the face of our new strain of fuzzy Americana. This record moves from cautious shine to swirling dark, showing all sides of the dubious kind of redemption hinted at in the album’s title, but nothing is ever lost in these layers.