There’s a sad, all-too familiar irony that grips many a career in pop and rock. That is, having spent years in the wilderness, striving to crack an entry into the collective consciousness and claim the identity they’ve always wanted for themselves, a long roll-call of musicians have found that success merely divorces them from the only identity they ever had. This seems to be the complaint Kurt Vile is suffering from on his sixth LP, b’lieve i’m going down…, in which his lonely Americana and slovenly folk yields the perfect backdrop for oblique tales of how his assumption to rockstardom has done less to cement his tenuous sense of self and more to dissolve it even further. Of course, songs like the playful “Lost My Head There” and the searching “Dust Bunnies” could just as easily be about the consequences of excessive drug consumption or no-less excessive levels of modern stress, yet the persistence of the self-alienation motif amid slanted nods to his career in music end up strongly insinuating that his growing status as a rock icon is weakening the already weak hold he has over himself.
Opener “Pretty Pimpin” lays the groundwork for this theme nicely. Over a purposeful yet sleepy guitar progression, Vile admits that when he “woke up this morning/ Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror.” Correspondingly, the reflective, gauzy-eyed post-chorus has him referring to himself in the third person, underlining the estrangement separating his former, ‘true’ self from the person he has become. He dolefully sings, “All he ever wanted was to be someone in life.” In so doing, he reveals the ambition that led him outside of himself and into an unrecognizable shell, one whose superficiality and triteness is loosely outlined by the song’s title: “Pretty Pimpin.”
The contours and consequences of this pimped shell are explored in subsequent numbers, including the prettily funereal “That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say).” Here, Vile’s sweetly plucked acoustic guitar caresses him through such numbed self-recriminations as, “Just a certified badass out for a night on the town/ Ain’t it oh-exciting, the way one can fake their way through life.” He never goes so far as explicitly outing himself as a fake or impostor of himself though, and in fact takes comfort with the rhetorical question, “In a way how could one ever prove you’re just putting them all on.” However, this faintly philosophical defense against charges of falsity notwithstanding, he presages his own fall from grace when he sings, “Stay Puft was on top of the world/ Then he fell all the way back down naturally/ The laws of physics have shown that a man must walk through life/ Via peaks and valleys.”
But even if this crash back down to his lowly origins is still a long way off for Vile, b‘lieve i’m goin down isn’t stingy when it comes to providing his ersatz “Stay Puft” persona with other sources of difficulty and distress. During the banjo wanderings of “I’m An Outlaw,” he confesses that he’s now “Alone in a crowd on the corner” as a consequence of his recent fame and the ‘outlaw’ role it imposes on him, harassed by the risk of “imploding” under the weight of its foreign demands. Similarly, the trickling organs and reverb’d strumming of “Dust Bunnies” has him complain about the effects touring and music has on his ability to even think straight, let alone remain the individual he once was. Adopting the second-person voice of the “baby” he addresses earlier during the panoramic song, he asks himself, “How can you talk over all that racket?/ What’s there to feel but totally whacked?”
And what is there to feel? Well, aside from the smeared confusion inherent to Vile’s deceptively acerbic lyrics, there’s also the stranded longing of his music, which is more stripped-back and spare than 2013’s previous effort, Wakin On A Pretty Daze. Even with this more skeletal approach, such tracks as the ghostly “Wheelhouse” and the placid “All in a Daze Work” do a good job of sounding expansive in that way only emptiness and directionless can evoke. They and their echoing melodies create the wide-angled, deserted atmosphere synonymous with Great American Plains, highways and landscapes, and in turn they galvanize the persistent impression that Vile is a man caught adrift with only his own media-constructed reputation for company.
Unfortunately, these songs also furnish the subject matter of b‘lieve i’m goin down with another musical complement. To be more specific, just as Kurt Vile the man is being eroded under ‘Kurt Vile’ the homogenized, druggy rockstar, much of the album is eroded under the kind of dusty rock, folk and Americana that’s been in circulation since the ’70s. Admittedly, this is one of Vile’s main selling points for the legions of nostalgic music fans locked into the Matrix, and to be fair, cuts like the piano-driven “Bad Omens” and the hopeful “Wild Imagination” have a timeless feel that’s only strengthened by his tightened songwriting. Yet there are other excursions — “Stand Inside”, “Kidding Around” — that aren’t especially distinctive or developed, leaving them as pleasant but ultimately disposable retreads through terrain other musicians have stamped a hundred times before.
That said, “Kidding Around” and its solemnly ooo‘ed finger-pickings does feature a verse where Vile rails against the tendency of critics like Yours Truly to put words in his mouth and turn him into something he isn’t. This is completely fitting, since sardonic lyrics like “Ain’t it funny when others try to tell you what you’re trying to do” return us to the central theme of b‘lieve i’m goin down…, reminding us that the paradoxical cost of notoriety for one’s self is the loss of control over how this self is defined. This means that, in the end, it’s not Kurt Vile who has become famous, so much as that partial or distorted version of him that serves to reinforce our own shopworn worldviews. And to this caricatured version, this version that’s fundamentally a reflection of Tiny Mix Tapes, we want to award three stars.