Kurt Vile’s been carving out his own singular niche since his nascent days recording for Gulcher and Mexican Summer, releasing limited edition LPs such as Constant Hitmaker and God Is Saying To You, while still moonlighting with The War On Drugs when the former LP was released. His artistic breakthrough, along with the slow ending of the incessant comparisons to The War On Drugs, began when he signed with Matador in 2009 and released Childish Prodigy, to this day perhaps his most underrated album, but the one which gained him indie luminary fans such as Kim Gordon and Bradford Cox. He’s struck creative gold from that point onward, veering from strength to strength on the likes of the concise, soft-hewn pop of 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, to the elongated, Crazy Horse-esque jams of Wakin On A Pretty Daze. His sixth album, B’lieve I’m Goin Down…, finds Vile at his most loose and bleary-eyed, with a hazy, vertiginous feel on the darkest and most spontaneous collection of songs he’s released to date.
Opener “Pretty Pimpin” is a surging, melodic number, thematically akin to New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis,” as Vile contemplates life on the road disconnected from himself and his family (“I woke up this morning didn’t recognize the man in the mirror / Then I laughed and I said ‘oh silly me… that’s just me’”). It’s something of an aberration as Vile assumes characters throughout B’lieve, as on the loping, banjo driven number “I’m An Outlaw,” invoking Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, while conjuring the stark anomie akin to the novel’s protagonist Hazel Motes, or any prototypical outsider, really, as he laconically croons, “Girl you got wise blood to come when summoned / I’m an outlaw on the brink of self-implosion.”
“That’s Life Tho, Almost Hate To Say,” is even resigned in its gentle plucking style, although it’s dignified resignation, as Vile intones, “Almost hate to say / That’s life, though… in every brutal way,” again alluding to O’Connor, this time The Violent Bear It Away, as he elliptically references Francis Tarwater and the doomed inevitability of his existence.
Despite copious O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy references, B’lieve is anything but a stereotypically nebbishy academic album akin to The Decemberists’ work. It hews much more closely to Isaac Brock’s hallucinatory scorched-earth apocalyptic premonitions on Modest Mouse’s finest moments, and musically, it’s the purest distillation of Vile’s idiosyncratic style to date.
The album’s emotional apotheosis occurs on the fireside balladry of “Stand Inside,” seemingly both an apology and affirmation to Vile’s wife. Musically, with its meditative guitar figures and rippling piano, it recalls the more tender moments of Neil Young’s Sleeps With Angels, and shares with that album a recognition of just how inherently ephemeral love can be. It’s cautiously optimistic, slyly suggesting that being apart from his loved ones can actually grow his relationship with them, before concluding, “Every window, everywhere I go / You spy on me / Keep me unlonely.” It’s an unsparing sentiment of love, loss, and redemption, and a sublime example of the divine alchemy that pervades B’lieve, easily Vile’s masterpiece to date.