It seems the music critics of the world (i.e. anyone with Internet access) have agreed that this is the Philadelphia rocker Kurt Vile’s magnum opus, some grand summation of the studied and gifted musician’s aesthetic (which the media has pegged as stoner). I’ve been listening pretty regularly to the 70-minute record since the album hit my porch around April 9th, and I find it more aggravating than anything else.
For one, I find the opening song, the 9-and-a-half-minute “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” to be a frustrating waste. It starts out great, with beautiful guitar tones and band sounds, and is crisply recorded—it has elements that evoke those great 1970s AM classics like “Driver’s Seat” or “Year of the Cat.” But it really goes nowhere, and Vile’s vocal performance seems to be unsure, meandering, exhausted, with no compelling through-line. I just kept picturing Vile’s co-producer, the underrated and unsung John Agnello, trying to coax a better vocal out of him, perhaps medicating with drink or herb, and it all backfiring, until they were like, “Well, this is the best we can do, fuck it, on to the next one.”
It’s a shame about the opener, because most of the rest of the record is pretty damn fine. The second song, “KV’s Crimes,” is one of Vile’s finest rockers, an AC/DC-like stomper with an impassioned vocal, full of the usual slightly cocky snarl and off-the-cuff catchiness. “Was All Talk” is a nice melding of Can-like propulsion, Vile’s tasty acoustic guitar work and nifty keyboard noises.
“Never Run Away” harkens back to Vile’s best work, streamlined and not overproduced, with a strong atmosphere and melody. “Pure Pain” is another good stomper of a tune that, in keeping with the overall “expansiveness” thing, breaks into airy waltz-time passages every now and then. “Too Hard” is Vile trying valiantly to break out of the navel-gazing rock star world, coming to grips with being a better father, husband and person in general, and succeeding. It’s an affecting tune (except for the parts where he just starts singing “Yeah” for no particular reason).
You’ll dig this if you want to feel a little of what it’s like to be a rocker dad/music geek hitting his stride professionally (it seems a lot of the people who praise this record harp on this part). But there’s a heavy-handedness and overall lack of interesting melody here that makes me think that being on a big label like Matador may be stifling to a sensitive creature like Vile. I’ve been listening to a lot of his earlier music to find out what’s going on, and there’s an ease and sense of relaxation that’s now missing. The ambitious hyping of this record doesn’t serve it well. There’s a nice, modest but satisfying LP lurking in this album’s bloated confines. Kurt Vile’s done it before; hopefully he can do it again.