Bottle It In
Kurt Vile has a strangely neutralizing way about him. The casual demeanor and nonchalant delivery of his song lyrics possess the ability to temper the profound to the prosaic, and to elevate the inconsequential to the noteworthy. Through him, crises turn to mere botherations, and annoyances rise to the rank of bona fide gripes. In short, Vile’s perspective maintains a certain equalizing property. We see this in 2015’s “Pretty Pimpin’,” wherein the song’s protagonist suffers the Kafkaesque indignity of waking up in someone else’s body only to find that weekdays have lost all discernible meaning and, worse yet, that the two men share the same grooming habits. Filtered through Vile’s distant half-drawl, these two revelations feel equally jarring and likewise irrelevant. “Pimpin’,” like so much of b’lieve i’m goin’ down, utilizes a muscular rhythm section and resolutely finger-picked guitar to apply a sense of direction to Kurt’s otherwise aimless vocals and lyrics.
But on Bottle It In, Vile’s seventh solo album, the singer’s surreal, dreamlike lyrics seem to pull away from his backing band’s alt-country orientation. There’s “Hysteria,” which owes some lyrical debt to Pixies’ “La La Love You” and includes lines about a man contracting rabies from his admirer and later jumping out of an airborne plane. Both songs use humor to undercut the fact that at the heart of these tunes is a genuine romantic suggestion, but in Vile’s case, the band’s metronomic drum machine and smoke-clouded atmosphere detract from the ostensible tongue-in-cheek tone of the song. “Check Baby” features a domineering synth track and hardass guitars to propel Vile’s standoffish voice, even while he uses turns of phrase like “What a whale of a pickle” or “We run like chickens from dickens.” And yet for all the incongruity here, it’s Kurt’s blasé delivery that works to compromise the rift between music and lyrics. He doesn’t care about the imbalance, so why should we?
However, Bottle’s more serious lyrics create a consonance between sound and sentiment that rivals some of Vile’s previous highs. “The mutinies in my head keep staying/ I take pills and pills to try and make them go away,” he explains on “Mutinies” with the defeated contrition of Isaac Brock on a more reflective Modest Mouse song. On the sparse “Cold Was the Wind,” Vile confesses over a bed of unnerving static: “On the plane, I’m drinking red wine/ ‘Cause like everybody else, I’m afraid to die/ Did I mention that I’m afraid of dying?” Here we see Vile wrestling with the rock & roll trope that claimed Buddy Holly and Ronnie Van Zant: the legendary death via airplane. But he walks back rock’s obsession with life’s ephemerality and death’s permanence, instead mollifying himself with a glass of pinot (not hard liquor or pills, as other famously doomed rockers would have preferred). On Bottle It In, Vile has learned how to strike a balance between anxious survivalism and detached fatalism.
The hallowed paradigm of drums-bass-acoustic guitar carries with it an implacable stoicism, which is why genres like country and folk are so easy to parody. There’s an assumed dignity to it, and for Kurt Vile to use this platform to voice his slacker grievances feels almost irreverent. But here on Bottle, he expands his arsenal to push the joke farther. We hear marimbas on “One Trick Ponies” and sci-fi synths on the closing instrumental “(bottle back).” This is an exercise in experimentation, safe though it may be, that compromises neither Vile’s nor his band’s pointed vision of windswept alternative folk. The album’s second half becomes noticeably more lo-fi as it draws to a close, with the band laying down instrumental nebulas into which Vile allows his voice to languidly recline. It’s a hazy ending to a bear of an album, but one that rewards those who stuck with it through the 80 or so minutes. But the paradox continues: Vile’s never sounded more like he’s had nothing to say, which is why it’s never felt more important that we listen.