Sunday, October 21, 2018

album review: 'bottle it in' by kurt vile

It's hard not to feel like Kurt Vile is going in the exact opposite direction I hoped he would.

Or at the very least it's hard to say if he's playing to his strengths, because I've always been of the opinion that when the man feels fit to string his ideas together he can craft some fascinating songs with great hooks that I'll recommend to this day. Hell, I put one of his biggest singles 'Pretty Pimpin' on my year-end list of the best songs of 2015, and I stand by that - yeah, the songs might coil and meander but so long as the hook stabilizes it's some great indie rock. It's also why I tend to like his earlier, garage-inspired records more than his newer stuff - less complex and psychedelic, sure, but there's a visceral catchiness and core of tension to his best work I really do appreciate.

And yet that seems like the last thing on his mind, which can get frustrating for me because while the shaggy song construction and perpetually stoned demeanour might give some the impression of laziness, I've never bought that. I've read interviews with Kurt Vile and the impression I've got is closer to the guy in the room who is so smart he might operate on a different detached plane of existence, where you cling to moments with a hook or stable progression because it's a clue of what level he's on. But over the past two projects I've heard increasingly less desire to get there: b'lieve i'm goin down felt increasingly lethargic and his project with Courtney Barnett Lotta Sea Lice felt more like an extended jam session than a fully composed piece, and with buzz suggesting this record was even more obtuse... well, I wouldn't say I was thrilled, but I was curious. So okay, what did we get on Bottle It In?

Well, I'll say this: I'm not sure anyone can deny that Bottle It In isn't a step in a more intriguing direction, at least on the surface. There's more rock textures and instrumental diversity, and you certainly can't argue that Vile doesn't give himself the space to get creative. And yet while I won't say there aren't moments that work, the most listens I gave to this project the more I was convinced that my initial hypothesis was more true than ever: Kurt Vile and I are going in opposite directions away from each other in terms of taste across the board, and I'm losing my incentives to circle back.

And really, it's tempting to point at the most obvious culprit: the length, where four songs are over seven and a half minutes and two songs are over ten... but I would argue that song length is rarely the issue in comparison with momentum and progression. After all, I'm a guy who has defended Swans for their titanic pieces, I'm not averse to songs that are even longer than this... providing they get somewhere. And once again, it seems like Kurt Vile isn't really all that interested in creating a climax or utilizing any sort of larger structure beyond a mantra-like embrace of repetitive melodies and sizzling grooves, less hypnotic and more weary and cyclical. We'll get to more of how it doesn't seem like Vile is having as much fun this time around when we get to the content, but this can become a sticking point pretty quickly, especially when the more languid cuts are juxtaposed against songs that do have more structure and momentum and dare I say an actual hook. It gives me more the impression that Kurt Vile is trying to serve two audiences, the ones who love the catchier, more radio-friendly indie rock of 'Pretty Pimpin' and those who like the languid, quasi-psychedelic meandering pieces - and while I'll freely admit I'm more in the former category, I can at least appreciate the latter group if the songs earn that length - and there are points where Kurt Vile gets close. I have issues with some of the production on the title track but the content so drenched in weary melancholy and fizzled tension makes the long song make sense and 'Backasswards' is just a great album centerpiece with its reversed guitar leads and solid acoustic guitar and bass foundation playing against it. But even beyond that, most other songs on this project feel a little overlong as well: the only songs in the three minute range or less are the album opener, the country cover 'Rollin With The Flow', and '(bottle back)', an experimental coda that adds nothing to the album and ends things on a really awkward note.

But it does call attention to the next big issue with this project: the production, namely some of the percussion and synthesizer choices. This was an issue on b'lieve i'm goin down and it's somehow more apparent here, this time with the synthesizers being supplemented by the sort of thin, fizzy drum machines that just don't hold the same groove and foundation that live drumwork does - it feels brittle and ever so slightly off, and I'm not always sure that's intentional. Take 'Hysteria' - I like the thicker jangle of the guitar and bass, but when you have that fizzy tap for percussion right at the front of the mix, it's distracting - same that sandy accent around the drums on 'Mutinines' with that massive burbling bass synth roiling beneath 'Check Please' or that grainy cushion of lo-fi film beneath the title track and 'Cold Was The Wind' where the thin acoustics seems to sink into it - when you have live drums and are willing to let your guitars bring more feedback, I'm a little baffled why there's a need to these sorts of electronic elements that don't really feel well-mixed into what's usually a more organic listen, like how the weedy electronics wind up clashing with the weedy guitar line on 'Yeah Bones'. And it's not like the weirder flourishes can't work - some of the atmospheric touches on 'Backasswards' fit the odd discomfort of the song - but I won't deny that I'm gravitating more to the rougher grooves of 'Loading Zones' or the chunky banjos of 'Come Again' or even the female backing vocals on the bouncy 'One Trick Ponies', although some of that might come from the saxophones that occasionally creep in which even Vile admits is a direct Springsteen homage. But on the flip side, then you get the blast of fuzz that erupts on 'Skinny Mini' and not only does it not fit the song, it just feels like an unnecessary and overblown attempt to add an edge that's not congruous with anything on the album.

But then we have the lyrics... and look, I've always been of the opinion that Kurt Vile's low-key wit is generally pretty engaging, if a little obtuse and meandering, which is just as true here. But the tone of the writing has changed - more nakedly reflective, and I'd be inclined to say falling into a slow downwards spiral if there was any deeper sense of tension beyond a strange, melancholic acceptance. If there's a rebellion it feels increasingly canned and the luster is fading like the family man scamming the system out of parking tickets on 'Loading Zones' or the half-believed defiance of 'Rolling With The Flow', and outside of that Vile seems increasingly self-aware about how much even he is falling into little, internal patterns, held back long after it was too late and likely for reasons that make less sense with every passing day. And while you get the expected disdain of modernity on 'Mutinies', you also get the sense that Vile knows his complaints feel paltry amidst the endless cycles around him, where even the fleeting moments of sleaze feel dimmed, and yet are prized all the same. In other words, this is an album that intentionally coils into itself - and to Vile's credit, he doesn't frame it like a good thing... but it leads to a weird sort of ironic paradox where despite that bottling in being the thematic centerpoint, you're left thinking that a little more openness might have led to a more engaging listen... and on some level, I think he knows it too, with the reason behind his choice feeling all the more inscrutable.

In other words... there's a part of me that respects this album a lot more than I actually like it, because there is a thematic core that can justify its discomforting choices in production and length, and at least part of the album seems designed to alienate the audience. And let's not mince words, there's an art to that - when The Flaming Lips made The Terror five years ago, that was one of its biggest selling points. But where that record used that alienation to make a deeply unsettling thematic point and pushed its production into some of the band's most abrasively compelling, Kurt Vile seems fit to narrow his orbit for reasons that feel increasingly murky and hollow, and that doesn't always strike me as the best use of his strengths. So for me... eh, 6/10, definitely for fans only or those up for a challenge, but it was compelling enough to keep me coming back despite the alienation, and who the hell knows where he'll wind up next...

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