Kurt Vile is this indie-rock generation’s preeminent guitar mystic — heir to the vaunted legacy of the Meat Puppets, John Fahey and J. Mascis, spooling out his sly epiphanies with the languid equanimity of a high-as-balls buddy for life. Vile also has a knack for undercutting his chillness with a Neil Young-circa-1974 sad side that keeps his jams down to earth and gives his albums a mordant relatability in these less-than-hopeful times. Vile’s latest LP has his tastiest playing and his deepest writing. It follows his fantastic 2017 collaboration with singer-songwriter wiz Courtney Barnett, Lotta Sea Lice, and suggests he’s in the midst of a real artistic roll.
“Loading Zones,” sets the tone early on, with Vile’s signature exquisite fingerpicking and Frampton-meets-Future talkbox jive backing funny lyrics about how good he is at finding free parking; the loading zones in question aren’t a trippy metaphor, they’re actual loading zones. That song, as well as others, are imbued with a kind shrugging Joe Walsh-ian everydude realism. Even when he sings, “girl you gave me rabies and I don’t mean maybe” over a hobbled drum machine and doomy acoustic strumming, it sounds like he might break into a smile at the end of every verse. His version of Charlie Rich’s “Rolling With the Flow” is grade-A soft-rock philosophizing, with Vile stepping into the role of lighthearted outlaw: “Guys my age out raising kids, I’m raising hell just like I did.” And the speedy, sun-spackled “Yeah Bones” offers, “when nobody calls you on the phone don’t break your bones over it.”
The peak laser show moment is “Bassackwards,” ten minutes of space-head wonderment that does for the Meat Puppets’ “I’m a Mindless Idiot” what the Sopranos did for Goodfellas – finding level after level of emotional, psychological and aesthetic nuance and intrigue in the eternal allure of transcendentally zonked noodling. Vile sings about getting out of his mind and hanging out on his friend’s radio show (“wasn’t no format because, well, we like it like that”); he wanders from the beach to a bay and digs a sunset; he chills out on the grass with a very different mind; he’s out of sorts but he comes around; he strums out some Chet Atkins. Loopy synths swell, bassist Jesse Trbovich pokes around the melody and drummer Kyle Spence gets so deep in the Zen-minimalist pocket he could attain permanent resident status.
The mood darkens a little as the album progresses, but the introspection is welcome, and often moving. The title track is delicate, tired-eyed lonely-guy folk. “Mutinies” sets lyrics about the futility of relying on anti-depressants and hating smartphones over a slo-mo acoustic figure, before arriving at the cosmic couplet: “Jupiter and Saturn/I think I’m noting a pattern.” The shimmeringly sepulchral “Come Again” sounds like a super session between John Fahey and Lindsey Buckingham.
The weirdest thing here, “Skinny Mini,” might also be the most brilliant. It’s another ten-minute epic. His guitar lurches along like a stoned snail, interrupted by butt-ugly squalls of industrial noise, snide, smeared neon bar sign ambient bullshit and wah-wah wallowing. Vile sings about global warming and feeling like you’re drowning in dirt, and the wild card of a freewheeling woman who eases his worried mind amidst all that struggle and strife. He’s into this chick; maybe a little too into her. The more he sings about her the more hilariously absurd and vaguely creepy his hippie Valentines start sounding: “She’s a skinny little, scrappy little, wild talking, all good, always means well, baby girl, dandelion, flower child / All substance, no jive talkin’, fast walkin’, girl babe,” he offers, before noting that any man in his right mind would want to “roll her up in a ball and eat her in a sandwich.” The cumulative effect feels closet to a Randy Neman parody of a sensitive-mustache Seventies love offering than the real thing, and its exactly why Vile is so uniquely in his own bag. He doesn’t just update rock’s stringy-haired legacies. He turns them inside out.