Album Review: Kurt Vile “b’lieve i’m goin down”

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Kurt-VileLife is weird, man. It’s the sort of shortsighted truism that has doomed dudes with guitars who look like Kurt Vile forever. Thankfully, for all of our sakes’, Vile actually knows what he’s doing, and his latest album, b’lieve i’m goin down…, proves it.

As much as it may sound like it to a casual listener, b’lieve i’m goin down… isn’t another run-of-the-mill folk record. It’s true that Vile has always embraced his genre with gusto, but that doesn’t mean he’s unoriginal. His most recent releases, Wakin on a Pretty Daze and Smoke Ring for My Halo, saw him exploring the lighter and darker sides of guitar-driven folk respectively, and consequently toying with the affected emotions of what it means to make a Happy Record or a Sad Record.

This, his sixth release, finds the perfect balance of yin and yang with which Vile’s been messing for years: an examination of the genre that’s equal parts self-aware parody and loving embrace.

The whole album gives off the impression of being lighthearted and imprecise, but it is actually an extremely well-organized mediation on what it means to question your own existence. It’s an exercise that’s at once silly and vital. From that paradox b’lieve i’m goin down… finds its most impressive strengths.

On every track, Vile manages to question consciousness, all while showing just how pointlessly self-indulgent that really is. Take “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say).” The song offers a lot of worn down satisfaction with a life well-lived. Lines like “the laws of physics have shown that a man must walk through life via peaks and valleys,” would be seriously delivered by somebody less self-aware: a real ‘whoa, bro’ moment. Instead, Vile carefully pokes fun of such observations as a reminder that there’s no reason to take ourselves too seriously. Case in point: Vile’s best example of that world-weary man who was “on top of the world” who then “fell all the way back down”? He cites the Stay Puft Marshmallow man from Ghostbusters.

In what are typically serious moments of reflection, Vile forces you to decide if you want to be overly serious, or bemused and inquisitive. The track’s last lines are repeated over and over to a fade, “That’s life tho/ Hate to point out the painfully obvious/ That’s life tho/ So sad; so true/ That’s life tho.” It’s up to you to decide whether he’s giving off an earnest or ironic sentiment.

This smirking sincerity permeates the whole record. Throughout b’lieve i’m goin down… Vile sends up the idea of what a Folk Song can be, while simultaneously settling into its history with aplomb. He’s picking up the genre’s identity and looking it over with a wry, loving smile before putting it back down and moving on.

Lead single “Pretty Pimpin” is a perfect example. The song’s instantly catchy finger-picking riff bounces along as Vile figures out what he thinks about his own identity. It’s an otherwise straightforward folk trope: The Troubadour with Some Heavy Thoughts Playing his Guitar to Figure them Out. But, as the character in the song has a weekly identity crisis, a repeated splash of sharp bended-up notes break up the track’s flow. Not unlike the (in)famous moments in Radiohead’s “Creep,” the guitar crackles in “Pretty Pimpin” interrupt an otherwise smooth sound, and illustrate and feed off the song’s main self-conflict.

Similar messing around can be found in more piano driven melodies like those on “Lost my Head there.” Vile uses a typically serious delivery method – Singer at Piano wondering about The Universe – and tweaking it ever so slightly to prove a point. The jaunty jerky piano part, the lyrics ever-so-slightly detached from reality, and everything about the song hides the fact that on a record about identity and self exploration, a track called “Lost my Head there” is right in the middle of it all. But hey, maybe it’s just a “little funky psychosis,” as Vile calls it.

As he does elsewhere on b’lieve i’m goin down…, Vile raises these juxtapositions, then concludes that he’d rather levitate through them than puzzle over them too much. “I didn’t wanna mess around, look around at all of this/ But then I did though,” he claims before the song spirals out into a four minute jam session. It would be frustrating to see him tiptoe up to such important questions and then dance away at the last minute if it weren’t so obvious that he was having one hell of a time doing it.

And that’s just it. Despite (or maybe in spite of) everything on this album you can sink your teeth into, this is still a collection of 12 really great songs. b’lieve i’m goin down… has enough pep to be a summer soundtrack, and enough quiet moments to carry you through the fall into winter. And that’s still the best aspect of Vile’s music: it always sounds great, whether or not you’re pondering the universe along with him. You don’t even need the grinning philosophy to love this album.

After all, maybe life is, as Vile claims on “Wheelhouse,” just “a medication situation” that requires “a little something from the cupboard over there” to get through. For all of its Serious and Real questions, b’lieve i’m goin down… is still a light, summery record that ends with telling tracks “Kidding Around” and “Wild Imagination,” clear indicators that he’s just having a spoof and a goof with the whole thing. Whether or not he’s being sincere, Vile’s messing with conventions of genre and identity, and does it all without getting too heavy too often. b’lieve i’m goin’ down… is a gem of an album that’s a must listen for any fan of folk, songwriting, or staring into the void. And – if nothing else – it reminds you that no matter how you deal with it, life is weird, man. b’lieve i’m goin’ down… is out September 25 on Matador Records.

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