Smoke Ring for My Halo
, March 15th, 2011 11:55
Prolificacy can be a curse, especially amongst musicians. It often floods their back catalogues with unnecessary EPs and hastily compiled albums, and often obscures anything that might be of value to the first-time listener. Sometimes, however, it can serve as a perfect barometer of an artist's musical development, as in the case of the much-lauded Kurt Vile.
During his relatively short recording career, Vile has produced four albums and two EPs of glorious and effortlessly leftfield Americana, each one building on the merits of the last. His latest long player, Smoke Ring For My Halo, seems to be the album Vile was travelling towards since his arrival on Matador with 2009's Childish Prodigy: a most realised representation of his unique aesthetic and song writing capacity. While artists like Animal Collective and Deerhunter look to construct the enjoyable idiosyncrasy that comes so naturally to Vile, Smoke Ring for my Halo sees the Philadelphian heading in the opposite direction, resulting in his most accessible work to date while remaining utterly distinctive.
Opener 'Baby's Arms' is as close to a direct love song as Vile's ever going to deliver, albeit in his own inimitable, understated way. The production is pitched perfectly; Vile's familiar shimmering and distant acoustic work restrained by soft percussion and gentle harmonies, coated in a mandatory helping of reverb.
Vile's vocal evokes a world-weariness that – while not missing from previous records – crucially feels heartfelt: "In my time I was whack and wild / I was just being myself, damn / but then I said that it was trying on faces/one that erases my discreet graces" he sings in self-examination on 'In My Time'.
Smoke Ring...flows from track to track with elegance and grace, and it fast becomes obvious that this is Vile's first real attempt to compile an album of songs, as opposed to whittling down his unlimited fecundity into the requisite 11 or 12 bite-sized chunks. Single 'Jesus Fever' is a glorious slice of Americana, its harmonic progression and sentiment similar to Childish Prodigy-era track 'He's Alright', yet far more powerful in delivery: a perfect example of Vile's progression from riveting potential to proficient songwriter in full-bloom. 'Puppet to the Man' is a quick-witted piece disguised as an anarchic mid-paced rocker, while 'On Tour' begins a string of tracks that deal with nostalgia, introspect and autobiography.
The album is fleshed out by Vile's band, The Violators: an unfortunate name for a group that so subtly and ably accentuate their leader's vision, applying just the right amount of detail to songs born and raised in alone in a bedroom. The attractive finger-picking work of previous releases makes sporadic but effective appearances here, most notably on 'Peeping Tom' and highlight 'Runner Ups', while the insistent acoustic plod of the title track nails down wistful slide guitar embellishments and piano. 'Ghost Town' serves as an appropriate climax to Vile's finest work to date; its two chord verses filled with such non-committal admissions as "Christ was born, I was there / you know me; I'm around".
If it had been released 35 years ago, Smoke Ring... would have cemented Vile's place on the ambiguous list of Great American Songwriters alongside those which the album brings to mind: Petty, Seger, Springsteen et al. As it is, the singer will have to be content sharing Elliott Smith's mantle as the missing link between this lineage's past and present.