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Thursday, February 29th, 2024  

Kurt Vile

Believing is Art

Jan 25, 2016 Photography by Ray Lego (for Under the Radar) Kurt Vile
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Kurt Vile‘s sixth full-length album, b’lieve i’m goin’ down, is rife with songs about hard-living drifters, informed by the works of authors ranging from Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy. Yet Vile, particularly enthralled by McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, couldn’t manage to read the latter’s most famous work, The Road, primarily due to its subject manner dealing explicitly with a young boy’s travails with his father through the apocalypse. “I get weird with kids. Anything bad regarding kids freaks me the fuck out,” says Vile, the father of two young daughters. “Even just hearing a kid crying on the road. And the worst things imaginable can happen in a book.”

A somewhat surprising comment coming from Vile, as b’lieve leavens the darkness with self-deprecating humor. There’s nothing as rooted in disarming, touching autobiography as “Baby’s Arms” from Smoke Ring For My Halo, but Vile interjects plenty of hilarity throughout this album, even as he’s tracing the stark lifelines of outsiders.

Opener “Pretty Pimpin” is a surging, melodic number, finding Vile contemplating life on the road disconnected from himself and his family (“I woke up one morning/Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror/Then I laughed and I said ‘oh silly me, that’s just me’”). Part grand goof, or autobiographical? Hard to say. But it’s something of an aberration as Vile assumes characters throughout blieve, as on the loping, banjo driven number “I’m An Outlaw,” invoking Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, while conjuring the stark anomie akin to the novel’s protagonist Hazel Motes as he laconically croons, “Girl, you got wise blood to come when summoned/I’m an outlaw on the brink of self-implosion.”

“Well, if I’m gonna get pulled down by the psychedelic darkness, that’s how it’s gonna go,” laughs Vile as he hints that gallows humor is his manner of sublimating some of the high gravitas of the album.

Vile’s clearly somewhat tired of the incessant Neil Young comparisons he gets, although he still waxes rhapsodic over the man’s discography, enamored by his willingness to alienate his audience for the benefit of his art, beaming, “He’d play all these dark songs in the ‘70s about death and relationships falling apart when everyone wanted to hear Harvest. But that story’s been told, and even though this record gets compared to Tonight’s the Night, Neil already lived it and told the stories. I’d rather it didn’t.”

He rather surprisingly cites a legendary songwriter who has an infamous sense of humor as being something of a template for this record. “I love Randy Newman,” he says. “He’s got really good lyrics and perfectly constructed songs. It’s a lot of information in three minutes. It’s like the opposite of Wakin on a Pretty Daze. But musically, I’m still doing music my way. I self-edit more than you’d think, but I get attached to certain parts.”

In an era where it’s becoming increasingly more and more problematic to define success as an artist, with record sales decreasing significantly with each passing year and bands exponentially increasing at an hourly pace, Vile’s pragmatic about when he felt as though he had essentially broken through as a professional musician, and the map he wants to follow to go further.

“I’ve been successful since I conveniently got fired from my day job and was signed by Matador the next day,” he says. “I’m supporting my whole family, and to be supporting my family feels like a success. Critical acclaim and getting more successful-I’d like to be rich, but in a humble way. Just one step at a time so I won’t turn into a snob. Just giving to charity.” Vile even jokes that he’d like to own a second home, but confirms that it is something he’s considered. “Just from my work ethic and climbing the musical ladder,” he continues. “Before the music business bottomed out, there were the times when bands could be rich really fast. But with me it’s been such a gradual climb. I’ll still be making records when I’m in my 40s hopefully that are in touch with the reality that a rich person often loses.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s November/December Issue. This is its debut online.]



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