The new Kurt Vile album begins, like many great yarns, in medias res. The poet-king of Philadelphia is at an airport somewhere in North America, pondering the prospects of his own mortality and a cold beer, when an epiphany hits him: “Listenin’ to ‘Heart of Gold’/Gonna open up for Neil Young,” he muses over a simple piano figure. “Man, life can sure be fun.” A horn section adds a stately fanfare for the common dude; Vile sings along for a few wordless bars, then calls it a day on the first-thought, best-thought moment of Zen he calls “Goin on a Plane Today.”
That’s how he rolls on Watch My Moves, the 42-year-old folk-rocker’s ninth LP and first for Verve Records. It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from our old buddy KV, and it seems he’s spent much of that time relaxing in his castle of chords, feeling the cosmic breeze, listening to the colors of the wind, and watching time pass slowly. What’s that? You want to offer him a major-label deal after the eight-album run that made him one of the past decade’s foremost practitioners of the art of shaggy philosophizing once known as indie rock? Well, sure, that sounds all right. Just don’t ask him to change.
The irony is, it was on Matador releases like 2015’s B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down… and 2018’s Bottle It In that Vile seemed to set his sights on a higher tier of modern-rock hitmaking, with tightly-crafted singles like “Pretty Pimpin” and “Loading Zones.” There’s not much of that ambition to be found on Watch My Moves — fair enough, since it’s harder than ever to know what a modern-rock hit even means these days. Instead, he stretches out and gets comfortable on his loosey-goosiest jams to date, handing out 74 minutes of mellow wisdom off the dome. He’s wisely stopped searching for the next level up, focusing instead on the beautifully unfocused be-here-now beatitude that’s always been his greatest gift.
The anxiety that’s frequently lurked in the background of his fantastically chill music is still there, but you’ll have to work harder to locate it. “Playin’ in the music room in my underwear,” he narrates on the warm-toned daydream “Flyin (Like a Fast Train).” “Feelin’ fine, and then my psyche crumbled, pell-mell, stumbled….” “Like Exploding Stones,” the seven-minute gem released as the album’s lead single, might be about a migraine or an existential crisis. But those lyrical concerns fade into a splendidly zoned-out drone that’s one of the least-stressed-sounding pieces of music he’s ever made, with James Stewart, one of the saxophonists from the current iteration of the Sun Ra Arkestra, sending free-jazz hosannas into the night sky.
At moments like that one, or Vile’s emotionally rich cover of the ultra-deep Springsteen cut “Wages of Sin,” Watch My Moves is damn near transcendent. At others, like the verse in the finger-picked closer “Stuffed Leopard” where he live-tweets a listen to “Candy’s Room,” it’s ever so slightly half-assed. Often, it’s both at once, a tendency that doesn’t put him all that far off from his hero Neil — like on “Say the Word,” where he starts off freestyling about how “I wrote the words to this song drivin’ from Philly to Amherst,” then builds toward a gorgeous refrain about holding onto sanity in a world of chaos.
Halfway through the album, there’s another peaceful song about an unsettled mind. “Jesus on the phone, talkin’ bout a nervous breakdown/Even he don’t know how to bail us outta this one,” Vile sings over a familiar-sounding acoustic chord sequence. The pieces fall into place a few verses later, when he slips in a line from 2011’s “Jesus Fever” — a song that helped lay the foundation for his breakthrough more than a decade ago and still stands as one of his most radiant creations. It’s an eerie echo that ends up feeling unexpectedly reassuring. If you can’t beat your former selves, you might as well join ‘em.