At Kurt Vile’s best, he writes from a perspective that combines the gallows humor of Randy Newman with the tender pathos of Neil Young. He’s succeeded spectacularly at this, especially since 2009’s largely overlooked (and underrated) Childish Prodigy, his first album for Matador Records after sundry CDRs and two limited-press albums. Vile hit the roll of his life beginning with 2011’s shimmering opus Smoke Ring For My Halo; continued it in 2013 with the silvery, explorative elongated jam exercise Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze; and in 2015, his magnum opus to date, the bleary eyed, crepuscular panegryic to the downtrodden, B’lieve I’m Goin Down.... That’s one hell of a discography.
Unfortunately, neither the vexing Courtney Barnett collaboration Lotta Sea Lice nor the subsequent overreaching 2018 LP Bottle it In scaled similarly dizzying musical heights. But after a protracted gestation due to COVID-19, Vile’s emerged with another terrific LP in (Watch My Moves). It’s a sprawling, sublime collection which rivals B’lieve in the context of Vile’s largely unimpeachable discography.
The album’s lead single, the superb “Like Exploding Stones,” emulates the anti-anthemic ambivalence of Beck circa Mellow Gold. It serves as something of a manifesto for where Vile finds himself in 2022, the music twitching with a soulful intensity as he goofs with keen self-awareness: “Welcome to the KV horror drive-in movie marathon / But I’m just kidding and I’m just playin’ / And this is just the way that I’m makin’ a living.” It echoes the faustian bargain conundrum he previously grappled with on Smoke Ring For My Halo standout “Puppet to the Man.” And indeed, that’s a major aspect of Vile’s appeal—the manner in which he never reconciles the art-vs.-commerce conundrum, but nonetheless has a blast toying with the inner machinations of the struggle, to which he’s uniquely privy.
Levity is also found on “Flyin’ Like a Fast Train,” with its metronomic percussion and a twangy guitar buttressing Vile’s devil-may-care proclamation, “I don’t feel a thing until I pull into my station and I crash and burn.” It recalls the outlaw-country, divine fire that The Gun Club played with in their prime.
There’s at least one marked contrast to that intensity, however. The lithe, playful “Jesus on the Wire” features Cate Le Bon on backing vocals and piano, her contributions tastefully embellishing the Tom Petty-esque sparkle of the number, a somewhat breezy respite on an album otherwise steeped in high gravitas.
That gravitas returns on “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone),” a sad-eyed love letter to Vile’s now neighborhood in Philadelphia, but also a rumination on the deterioration of relationships over the course of time and distance. Undergirded by a Velvet Underground-esque nursery rhyme melody, and lyrically nodding to the VU’s “She’s My Best Friend,” Vile croons, “I was around but now I’m gone / Been gone down but now I’m just way down low.” Vile recognizes the cheapness of nostalgia; thankfully, he never allows himself to countenance that possibility. Instead, the song allows both listeners and Vile an ephemeral respite of dignified sentimentality.
Vile reverently embraces his idols on two of the album’s tracks, ”Chazzy Don’t Mind” and “Wages of Sin.” The former is a tribute to noise-pop act Chastity Belt (and includes contributions from its members), only to jettison any semblance of noise in favor of fireside torch balladry, aching in its forlorn quietude. The latter finds Vile nodding to one of his lifelong songwriting heroes—a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA-era outtake, cut with Vile’s band the Violators. He cannily eschews the polish of the original via the addition of a slashing electric guitar, lending the ballad a ragged edge, thus allowing it to fit his oeuvre like a glove.
The crux of this album’s deep emotional resonance is found on its superb opening track, the jaunty piano ballad “Goin’ On A Plane Today.” Vile dryly intones, “See you on the other side / Either on the tarmac or the afterlife / Things getting a little weird / My mind gone foggy, my memory’s unclear,” confronting his own mortality with all its attendant magic and loss. But Vile doesn’t wallow in self-pity, and the song, finding him ensconced in fever-dream mode, drifts from the imagined into the hazy realm of a flash-bulb memory, recalling an obviously life-changing moment of opening for a lifelong hero: “Listening to Heart of Gold / Gonna open up for Neil Young / Man life can sure be fun / Imagine if I knew this when I was young.”
It illustrates a certain resignation of how little one controls in their own life, put into sharp focus during the past couple years of lockdown and isolation. But Vile seems to have come to a point of acceptance, realizing that all we have is this moment, and he’s not about to waste one. Dreams never die, and Vile’s certainly lived out plenty of his. And if (Watch My Moves) is a harbinger of anything, it’s that the best has yet to come for Vile, as he, in the face of despair and adversity, perseveres, delivering yet another magical album, one which captures the imagination of youth while ultimately suggesting that hope is, now more than ever, essential.