Kurt Vile — Smoke Ring For My Halo, Matador Records, 2011
At the outset, I have to admit that I have only recently become familiar with Kurt Vile’s music. I first noticed him when his song “He’s Alright” was used to close out the second season of HBO’s Eastbound and Down. That song, constrained mostly to echoing guitar and Vile’s equally wandering voice, has an ethereal quality and overall haunting atmosphere that drew me in immediately. I have since had the opportunity listen to “He’s Alright” in its original context, as a bonus track to Vile’s 2009 album, Childish Prodigy. There, it fits well among a hazy collection of tracks that feel somewhat unfinished but well-worn, as if someone decided to permanently take up residence in a house missing an exterior wall.
Although Smoke Ring for my Halo has a higher level of production than its predecessor, this aesthetic remains, and frankly, it suits Vile well. These songs feel as though they were written only a few seconds prior to recording. Vile gives off a strange sense of becoming lost in his own songs, as he mumbles lyrics, seemingly changing up his rhythms at the last moment, and allowing the ends of his sentences to trail off. To be clear, I don’t think that any of this was recorded spontaneously. However, I appreciate the craft it takes to create that impression, and Vile’s songs have a certain authenticity to them, even when the lyrics veer toward a dorm room stoner sensibility.
Most songs within popular music have a sense of movement, in both time and space; that is, they have beginnings, middles, and ends, and the listener moves from one part to the next. Conversely, Vile’s songs reflect more of an atmosphere that surrounds the listener for a few minutes and then moves on. That is not to say that these songs do not contain familiar elements such as verses, choruses and so forth, but this structure seems far less urgent in this setting. Each song seems like an intimate view into whatever is passing through Vile’s mind at the moment. And whether those thoughts are sublime or mundane does not matter as much as the enjoyment of visiting such an odd, yet eerily-relaxed space.
Musically, the album reflects Vile’s vocal style, consisting of shimmering guitar, sparse bass, and in places, unobtrusive drum machines and natural percussion. Again, the sense of getting from here to there is minimized, and the album as a whole perhaps resembles nothing so much as sitting in a smoke-filled room as sunlight beams in. It may not be beautiful by conventional standards, but it is inarguably compelling and strangely soothing. An earlier generation might have referred to this as “come-down music.”
This review has gone for a good bit without referencing individual songs, but in writing about why I enjoy this music, I am struck by how much I view this album as a whole. Not to imply that this is a song-cycle, or that the songs segue into one another, but the ongoing lack of urgency deemphasizes the need for each song to announce itself. It is somewhat like recalling a long conversation that touches on many subjects. The places where that conversation changes gears, even if it does so abruptly, are not ultimately important to one’s memory of the event. That being said, listeners will likely enjoy the spaced-out “On Tour,” the lengthy album-closing “Ghost Town,” and the album’s most fully-realized track, “Jesus Fever.”
Usually, albums that are repetitive, unfocused, and cause the listener’s attention to drift do not gain glowing reviews. However, Smoke Ring for my Halo aptly demonstrates that there is an art form to being a space-cadet, and that sometimes, that space-cadet’s head isn’t a bad place to hang out for a while.