“On tour, Lord of the Flies. Aw, hey, who cares? What’s a guuuii-taaaaar?” So begins the sharply titled “On Tour”, a spacious, diary-like explosion nestled just a few minutes into Smoke Ring for My Halo, Kurt Vile’s fourth and finest full-length to date. Strings buzz, strummed patterns double back on themselves and from up above it all, the Philadelphia-native showers everything with cosmic, harp-like harmonics. It’s a song that’s both monastic and vast all at once, the kind of curiously rich work that seems like it was crafted by forty longhairs instead of just one. But Vile has gone great lengths in answering his own question in recent years, finding a way to distill thousands of hours spent with classic American guitar music into one very singular and sublime vision. Whether he’s channeling the energies of John Fahey or Tom Petty or even Bob Seger, Smoke Ring makes clear that the end result is his alone.
But to listen to Kurt Vile is to hear him in conversation with himself: That can be said of his ultra-wry lyrical observations just as much as the elliptical, brick-by-brick architecture of his songwriting. In the past, though, Vile’s words have been written off as mumbled, unintelligible, and listless — a criticism made all the more reasonable given the crude recording techniques he employed. But 2009’s Childish Prodigy, his Matador debut, found Vile wiping off some of the grimy, decidedly “lo-fi” film that had fenced off much of his work up until that point. (Additionally, he brought his sometime touring band, the Violators, into the studio to help fill out those songs that required more brawn. They also appear here.) It was a jump to the relative big leagues that, despite its cleaner approach, offered more in the way of promise than focus. That’s not at all the case here. As hinted at by last year’s Square Shells EP, a “stepping stone” to where we are now, the sonics and vocals have been spit-polished to shimmer — every sonorous detail can now be heard in full, and Vile’s voice has taken on a new, mountainous presence in the center of each song. The conversation’s grown far more engaging.
What we learn is that Kurt Vile has a lot to say. He can be quick, as on the strong-jawed, electric groove of “Puppet to the Man”, when he opens, “I bet by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man. Well I’ll tell you right now, you best believe that I am.” And he can yank your heart out, as he does a number of times here, perhaps most memorably amid the celestial fingerpicking of “Baby’s Arms”, when he tries convincing himself that, he’ll “never ever, ever be alone.” But he’s actually always alone here. Vile’s lonesome brand of melancholia is still communicated both plainly and unassumingly enough to be missed, but it’s that sense that he seems to be talking only to himself that lends these songs such magnetic pull. Between the two seismic chords of “Ghost Town” this album’s bulldozing climax, Vile wonders aloud, “think I’ll never leave my couch again, because when I’m out, I’m away in my mind. Christ was born, I was there. You know me, I’m around. I got friends, hey wait, where was I, well, I am trying.” Although he stretches those last two or three notes, it doesn’t feel like he’s singing. We’re eavesdropping on the most private of dialogs.
Sonically and compositionally, Vile allows us the space to do that. He’s still cycling between strummers and fingerpicked mazework, but the battery of pedal effects is mostly gone. Rather than stitch loop to loop to loop, Vile’s given every marvelous, carefully placed layer all kinds of room to aerate. In the past, “Peeping Tomboy” may have sunk halfway through its bridge, while single “In My Time” probably would have lost its way mid-jam. But here, Vile has acknowledged limits in length for the sake of depth. It makes for a full-blown journey. Though there isn’t an earworm like “Freeway” — that endlessly replayable, interstate love song from Vile’s 2008 Constant Hitmaker LP — Smoke Rings isn’t that kind of listen. This feels like a family of songs, one whose complexion and course changes as a whole with every spin. In the closing moments of “Ghost Town”, Vile leaves us with, “Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes, but I don’t pay ’em any mind. Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.” He knows exactly what he’s trying to say. — Pitchfork