Kurt Vile: Why It's Time To Anoint This Great American Songwriter

The wider world is poised to recognise another great name from across the pond..
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The wider world is poised to recognise another great name from across the pond..
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'Climb a ladder slowly'

That one line, delivered by Vile himself on the dangers of overhype and success might well be the recurring mantra his career so far has adhered to. The Philadelphia songwriter's slow fuse of a build from alternative troubadour to an artist who is about to tip his interference into the mainstream feels a shoe in, but it also seems a long time coming over the barricades.

Vile of course has been here before. His previous album releases have seduced critics and fellow musicians alike with their widescreen take on the art of rock and roll. Echoing the ghosts of Tom Petty and Neil Young you can draw a line from Vile back to the past with his classic harmonies. His music, however, is more than a reverential hike along the Americana highway of ghosts past. There's fractures and modern silhouettes aplenty. A burst of white noise, odd alchemies bubbling underneath the mix, his use of abstract lyrics. Vile is no story teller in the classic songwriter sense. Instead he pops in and out of his songs like he's translucent, a line drawing looking from the outside in at his own scene. It can be odd and unsettling listening to one of his songs, but salvation and hope is never far away. Truly, it marks him out as an original, even if sometimes its hard to know for what and for whom exactly you're rooting for.

There is also a sense of rebellion to his work too, but not in a traditional sense. Vile's version of punk rock isn't based on pose or the age old ethics of artist against authority. Interestingly it's something more simple. A yearning for the lo-fi and authenticity of simple recording techniques and songwriting. Vile eschews the digital. As a shy kid in Philadelphia he obsessed over the recordings on the Drag City label, where the likes of Pavement would release scratchy masterpieces that bridged art rock and the alternative seamlessly. "I really thought I could be on Drag City,' he would later recall. 'I heard these people who made good music but it was still pretty raw and had this real cult quality.'

Cult can be a double edged sword however, where taste and a perceived lack of ambition can combine in a strange way to derail an artists career. Vile's tunes are too pretty not to be heard to a large audience. From 'Jesus Fever' on Smoke Ring For My Halo to 'Never Run Away' from 2013's Waking On A Pretty Daze album there's always been a pop sensibility peeking through even his murkiest of works. Like a lot of artists youthfully bursting out of the alternative, sometimes the idea of using melody can seem almost a vapid gesture where a closed fist should be, but gradually over a period of six solo albums Vile has embraced both the beatific and the experimental into what could now be heavily hinted as the Philadelphia underground sound.

Alongside fellow Philadelphia musician Adam Granduciel a consistent body of fine work has now emanated from the city over the past few years. As a founder member of Granduciel's band War on Drugs, Vile and the WOD frontman's careers are heavily entwined but theirs is a support network rather than a rivalry. Vile had departed in fact before the release of his former band's epic release Slave Ambient, although he played on the record. Granduciel in turn had long played in Vile's backing band the Violator's before label commitments and time constraints forced his hand too. They remain close friends. Although certain journalists have tried to suggest something more competitive there is little to suggest a fall out or an edge despite what their standings in the industry might be.

2015 however now does seem to be Kurt Vile's time. There always comes a specific moment when great songwriters shift the shackles of their heroes and influences and present themselves alone in the spotlight because their talent demands it. On his new album b'lieve I'm going down there's certainly a sense of Kurt Vile cutting away at his songwriting methods until he's not wasting an inch. It shows.

Lead off single 'Pretty Pimpin' has already turned heads with its swathe of fingerpicked chords trading off with an electric organ and Vile's consistently wicked drawl. It's a hugely confident start to an album where the greatest strengths are it's eclecticism. Elsewhere 'Dust Bunnies' locks down like it's been recorded in a French chateau circa the Exile sessions, so much so that you can almost smell the cottons being burned in the background. There are definite surprises on the record too. The use of a banjo on 'I'm An Outlaw' peeling away like lush Cantonese bells in the background and the revelatory 'Stand Inside', where Vile finally seems to drop his guard and cut up lyrics to reveal himself fully as a willing conspirator to the power of love. It's sweet refrain of 'don't stand by my side/ stand inside' stays long in the memory after the music has faded into nothing.



Follow Craig on Twitter- @midnighttapes


b'lieve i'm going down is out now on Matador. Pick up a copy here