Kurt Vile – b’lieve i’m goin down…

Now that Kurt Vile has a couple of breakthrough albums behind him, he’s got enough assurance of success to be able to release an album as low-key and meandering as this one. Written mostly on a couch throughout the night while his wife and children were sleeping, b’lieve i’m goin down… is a winding hour of self-reflection that can drift by without much impact. But its textured arrangements and Vile’s sneaky wit very much reward close listening.

Having cut his teeth with The War on Drugs, the Philadelphia songwriter still evokes the sleepy, drawling longhairs that came before him, from J Mascis to Tom Petty. He’s also a real kindred spirit of Courtney Barnett, coming off so laidback and stream-of-conscious in the delivery that we can take for granted the actual craft involved. And as with Barnett, the songs sound enough alike on the surface that it takes time to tease out their individual, defining quirks.

“A real kindred spirit of Courtney Barnett”

Lead single ‘Pretty Pimpin’ opens the album, cruising along on reappropriated Southern twang and themes of dislocation made hummable (“I woke up this morning/Didn’t recognise the man in the mirror”). It’s got a traction the other songs don’t bother with, and the record’s back half turns out to be much more diffuse that those snappier first few tunes. Trailed by the subtle, slippery drumming of Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, these songs deal in woozy undercurrents and nocturnal swoonings. Recorded at a handful of different studios, they’re like internal monologues that snuck out into the world.

Sprinkled in with Vile’s typical musings here are more one-liners than ever before. ‘That’s Life, Tho’ may luxuriate in six-plus minutes of cyclical, heavy-lidded drift, but it’s got the album’s most tongue-in-cheek lyrics, about taking pills to “chillax” and faking one’s way through life playing “a certified badass out for a night on the town.” That self-deprecation surfaces again on the banjo-licked ‘I’m an Outlaw’, and the “don’t know much about history” line on ‘Dust Bunnies’ coyly echoes Sam Cooke. Vile balances the s’all-good nonchalance of his earlier LPs with something closer to irony-streaked brooding, retreating into himself for obscure in-jokes and asides more than documenting his life for our benefit.

That said, there are beacons to guide us through the slower, more drawn-out stretches. The hypnotic keyboard-and-drums groove of ‘Lost My Head There’ is a welcome highlight, while Vile adds rippling piano to his usual folky guitar rambling on ‘Stand Inside’. And lyrically, self-aware lines like “Fell on some keys and this song walked outta me” and “What’s the meaning of that last line?” grow from throwaway wit to part of a broader portrait of wise-cracking rumination.

Apart from that first song, Vile makes no real concession to hit-making or even keeping things energised enough to hold our interest. Not that it really matters, because by this point you’re either along for the ride with him or you’re not.

7/10 Stars