B’lieve I’m going down… is Kurt Vile’s sixth studio album. It was arguably only with his fourth album, Smoke Ring For My Halo that he became even vaguely successful, and only on his fifth, Waking On A Pretty Daze, that he started to resemble a household name. This career path may not be the traditional path to Rock’n’Roll fame but increasingly late bloomers like Kurt are “making it” later in their careers and later in their lives.
The National are arguably the poster-boys (or perhaps poster-men) for the musical late bloomers. The band were already in their late twenties when they formed back in 1999, and it wasn’t until 2005 that they even signed a record deal with anyone except for their own label. They signed to Beggars Banquet, and following the release of Alligator and Boxer, a snowball of critical acclaim and worldwide exposure saw them gradually grow into the indie-rock behemoths they have now become. In 2010, just short of their 40th birthdays, they released High Violet and finally had a top ten record.
The National are by no means the only late bloomers of course. Flaming Lips formed in 1983 but had to wait a decade before they came to fame via classic single, She Don’t Use Jelly; it would then take the band another sixteen years to release a top ten album in their home country. Spoon formed in 1993 and waited fourteen years and six albums to hit the top ten in America.
James Murphy didn’t even form LCD Soundsytem until he was 31, Leonard Cohen didn’t have a number one album in America until he was 78. They’re not uncommon but somehow these late bloomers success feels deserved and more likely to last; somehow less likely to go to their heads. Perhaps selfishly, it also makes us all feel that maybe we can somehow hold onto that dream, no matter how unlikely, and maybe one day we might just get our break, and be a successful and adored musician after all, it doesn’t hurt to dream we guess.
Over the course of his previous two albums, Kurt Vile has begun to carve an indelible mark on the alternative music scene. 2011’s break through, Smoke Ring For My Halo, marked him out as the latest contender to step into his generations Bob Dylan role. The album was a series of introspective tracks largely just Kurt and an acoustic guitar; it was a masterwork in light and shade, a record that was at once a classic folk album and something much more modern. The follow up, Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze, was arguably even more exciting, it saw Kurt step out of his previously bedroom orientated, night-time mood pieces and into a world of technicolour Americana. These expansive tracks, embraced the Laurel Canyon sun-soaked vibes of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young or The Byrds and merged it with the pop-tinged rock of Tom Petty or Eric Clapton. It was a timeless masterpiece that propelled Kurt into the limelight and into a hectic touring schedule.
Perhaps it’s almost inevitable for an artist like Kurt, who in no way seems to covet the limelight, that his reaction to his new found fame was to almost pull away from it. Whilst Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze was a sun-drenched, big studio effort, for his, largely excellent, new record, B’lieve I’m goin down… Kurt set out to recapture the feeling and sound of his couch. A slightly odd concept we’ll give you, but as he explained to Rolling Stone earlier this year, it was an attempt to return to the intimate song-writing that he was worried was getting lost. Kurt has spoke of this being his, “darkest record” to date, and regularly made mention of it being both a product of, and a meditation on night-time, perhaps unsurprising as it was largely written after his children and wife had fallen asleep and he had the freedom to write and play without distraction.
With all the said, whilst B’lieve… is unquestionably a darker, and more intimate record than its predecessor, it is not a return to the lo-fi, stripped back style of Smoke Ring For My Halo either. The album was recorded in a number of studios across America and is every bit as beautifully produced as any of his other records. It also has a fuller-band sound than Smoke Ring. Indeed perhaps oddly, this record could almost be the bridge between the two albums that proceed it, which begs the question is this an album that see’s Kurt progressing or regressing?
The art of developing your music is incredibly difficult to pull off, to move your sound forward without losing what found you acclaim in the first place, there’s moments on this album where you think Kurt’s gone too far, others where he’s played it a little too safe. Life Like This, starts off with a simple, and pleasant enough piano riff, and is joined by an oddly jarring guitar riff, then doesn’t really go anywhere for its four minute running time; whilst Lost My Head, just sounds clumsy, and despite being nearly saved by a beautiful if overly long intro, the painfully strained backing vocal just feels like someone trying too many new ideas at once. Elsewhere Dust Bunnies and the single, Pretty Pimpin’, are just a touch forgettable and examples of the oddest development on this record: Kurt’s voice. Whilst he’s always had a unique vocal inflexion, at times here he sounds almost like a caricature of himself, it’s as if he’s attempting to put on his own accent, giving some tracks a slight karaoke feel.
It’s thankful that these duff moments are relatively few and far between, because elsewhere there are unquestionably some of the most beautiful tracks he’s ever recorded. His personal favourite, Wheelhouse, is every bit as good as he promised, minimal, clanking percussion, entwined into a down-beat but rapidly picked guitar line, it adds up to an almost hypnotic whole. There’s a distant buzzing of slide guitar or perhaps a synthesiser that just adds yet another tone and texture to this beautiful, hazy drift of a track. Lyrically it’s a darker, sadder tone than he’s taken before, Kurt noting, “you gotta be alone to figure things out sometimes, be alone even in a crowd of friends”, whilst later he makes references to, “sleeping soundly for the first time in forever” and “a medication situation” perhaps hinting at struggles with anxiety, it feels intensely personal, so is certainly open to multiple interpretations. Whatever the subject matter, this is music to lose yourself in, music you must allow to wash over you, music where you have to embrace the small details, and tiny beauties that slight changes in guitar tone, gradually morphing percussion and the ebb and flow of the background noise create.
Elsewhere there are plenty of other beautiful moments; the self-referentially titled All In A Daze Work is a gorgeous, unhurried piece of acoustic guitar work, the superb attention to detail reminiscent of the work of Bert Jansch; I’m An Outlaw reminds us all that banjo’s don’t always sound as bad as Mumford & Sons, and Bad Omens is a gorgeous instrumental piece, pitched somewhere between British Sea Power and Matthew E. White.
As with Wakin On A Pretty Daze, much of this record seems to deal with Kurt’s difficulty in melding his life as a touring musician and a father. Stand Inside see’s Kurt picturing, “my good girl, my whole world turning on the couch”, perhaps as he wrote the song whilst his wife slept. His vocals become a rapid garbled collection of words, before he seems to pull himself back together declaring, “oh my god, I love you, I love you” before noting, “if I’m not there North Country or Scarborough Fair”, presumably leaving the two tracks as reminders for times when he’s away on tour. The other example is the wonderful closing track, Wild Imagination. With processed beats there’s a touch of Beck or The Beta Band in the music, but the lyrics are gripping; in our minds it’s Kurt on tour phoning home, his emotions shot through, “I’m looking at you, but it’s only a picture so I take that back, but it ain’t really a picture it’s just an image on a screen”, before almost half pleading for the person on the other end of the screen to “give it some time”. There’s happier moments later, as he recalls, “laughing so much, it so much it appears that I am crying a bit” and how he’s, “feeling much too many feelings simultaneously”. Like so much of Kurt’s work it’s a relatable picture, painted with shades of grey, this isn’t a Rockstar bemoaning his lot, this is a man sharing his experiences and making us see that life isn’t always easy for anyone. The life he describes is much like this album we guess, it’s not the most accessible or easy to love at times, but the moments of true beauty make it all worthwhile in the end.
b’lieve I’m going down… is out now on Matador Records. Kurt Vile tours the UK in November, as well as a date in March next year at The Roundhouse in London.