If you’ve heard a few Kurt Vile songs, or even a few songs from Vile’s band the War on Drugs, you have a pretty decent idea of what Vile is all about. His voice sounds like some kind gas station attendant version of Bob Dylan, and he’s cultivated a rustic songwriting style that belays his Philadelphia history. There’s a variety of tones and approaches, but if you listened to Vile’s 2009 record Childish Prodigy, you have a least a decent idea of what Vile is about. In almost any other case, this would prove to make at best a predictable record. But Vile presents the songs on his latest album, Smoke Ring For My Halo, with so much pathos and subtle musical tricks that every listen surprises.
Vile has a history of this. The War on Drugs, and even Vile’s solo albums, can often initially come off as unassuming. They float like a smoke haze in the background, to the point where over a first listen you may expect their music to drift into the background. But that’s not the case at all, especially concerning Smoke Ring For My Halo. Where on earlier records, Vile’s guitar meanderings could sometimes disappear into themselves, here there is always something– the Velvet Underground attitude of “Puppet to the Man”, the electronic haze of “Baby’s Arms”– to leave tiny hooks in your brainpan and invite continued listening. You end up digging deeper into the songs until suddenly your play count is at eight and you’ve only had the record for a day.
Admittedly, the longer songs here can seem a bit too long, and Vile putting comparative epics “On Tour” and “Society Is My Friend” back to back causes the slightest bit of drag on an otherwise streamlined record, but that’s just a quibble. For the most part, Vile’s talented guitar work is more than enough to reinvest in the extended bridges and codas that can show up on Smoke Ring. “Runner Ups” is an especially spectacular showcase of Vile’s talent with the six-string, as slides and hammer-ons and pull-offs of multi-tracked acoustic guitars dance over purposefully strummed, bell-like electric guitar tones.
Vile is at his best here at his brightest, which seems weird for an artist whose vocal cadence seems to project the album’s titular lazy, wafting smoke. But the melodies of songs like the opener “Baby’s Arms” and the slow-burning “In My Time” seem to communicate a kind of muted sunshine; they’re catchy and cheery, but deceptively so, given the laconic, purposeful tempo they march along at. While you could say that Vile paints with many of the same colors as someone like an Elliott Smith– dextrously strummed acoustic guitars, hushed and passionate voices, tasteful instrumental ornamentation– he’s in some ways Elliott’s opposite. Where Smith’s music always seemed tragic even at its most lush, Vile’s seems triumphant even when it’s stripped completely bare. That’s not often, though. Little details fill the songs on Halo. Take the spaceship phaser guitars that decorate album closer “Ghost Town”, or the sudden minor key chord change in “Jesus Fever”‘s arpeggio. And it’s these touches that ultimately make the album.
A lot of songs on Smoke Ring For My Halo fade out at their end, and if there any that don’t, they felt like they do. In many cases, songs fading out can feel like a cheat, as if the artist couldn’t decide how to concoct a “proper” ending for a song. But in Halo‘s case, it feels entirely appropriate. These songs, being so pleasant and peaceful, don’t feel like they should just end. They should last forever.