Kurt Vile: Bottle It In Album Review
Nestled into Side A of Kurt Vile’s seventh solo album, Bottle It In, is “Bassackwards,” 10 minutes of warped, psychedelic folk-rock, like a long sigh in the face of existential dread. Some songwriters seek wisdom in their aimlessness—reflecting on what they could have done better, trying to pinpoint what went wrong. But there’s no moral to Vile’s story; he wallows, unapologetically. To a slow-pulsing chord progression, like Tom Petty’s “Swingin’” played on the moon, the 38-year-old Philadelphia songwriter repeats himself and gets distracted before losing his train of thought completely. As he drifts through space, he sounds confused, resigned, distant. It’s one of his best songs yet.
This track, and its circuitous path toward nothingness, is a key insight into the mind of Kurt Vile. A lot of his lyrics take place in the early hours of the day, those bleary, pre-coffee moments, when nobody else is around, that have always somehow inspired his clearest thoughts. Over the last decade, Vile’s musical evolution from scuzzy, self-recorded doodles to fuller, brighter vistas has resembled a diary composed entirely of late-summer weekend mornings: He seeks comfortability over clarity, with anxiety creeping in but never quite blocking the light. Or as he puts it in “Bassackwards,” “The sun went down, and I couldn’t find another one… for a while.”
Recorded gradually throughout America while Vile was on tour over the last three years, Bottle It In adopts a drifting mind as its emotional compass. The scenery changes, but Vile’s dazed, half-smile remains constant. “One Trick Ponies” is a bouncy highlight about friendship and the joys of repetition, as Vile depicts the span of life as a “song, if the repeats were long.” Communicating in a chewy monotone that’s more for zoning out than singing along, he still writes lyrics that feel like predictive text: “What a world we’ve inherited/From another mother/What a whale of a pickle.” So over Bottle It In’s 80 minutes, he manages to communicate very little, yet the mood is immediately identifiable: slow, smoky, heady. There’s no rush to get where he’s going, and he rarely checks to see if you’re still following along.
While Bottle It In—Vile’s longest, most introspective record—lacks the quiet beauty of 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo, the warmth of 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze, or the immediacy of 2015’s b’lieve i’m goin’ down…, its monolithic Kurtness is its own defining quality. In a recent New York Times interview, he jokingly compared the record to Bruce Springsteen’s multi-platinum Born in the U.S.A. Of course, nothing sounds like a “Dancing in the Dark”-style breakthrough, but there is a sense of comprehensiveness, each song zooming into a different, hazy corner of his psyche. The result feels like an extended hang alone with Kurt in a dark basement. Here, he’s less likely to summon the energy for a jam like 2009’s “Freak Train” and more likely to, say, crack a joke about avoiding parking tickets (“Loading Zones”) or gush about being in love while ripping noisy guitar solos for 10-plus minutes (“Skinny Mini”). At a certain point, though, the air can get a little stale.
To keep things fresh, he enlists the help of Cass McCombs, Kim Gordon, and Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, though often in barely noticeable ways. Only harpist Mary Lattimore steals the show, ascending the free-floating title track into a menacing, regenerative anti-epic. Yet Bottle It In rotates entirely around Vile. Just as you couldn’t mistake his voice or lyrics for anyone else’s, his silvery, shapeshifting guitar remains a defining sound in modern indie rock. When his compositions feel like thoughts in progress, his guitar speaks to the intensity bubbling just under the surface.
At its best, Bottle It In pairs music with message to create a new tension in Vile’s work. The anti-technology lyrics of “Mutinies” are fairly simple (“I think things were way easier with a regular telephone,” he mutters), but the arrangement is complex and colorful, building to a droning sunshower that envelopes his words. “Cold Was the Wind,” meanwhile, furthers his penchant for rambling about his rambles, but its arrangement is one of his darkest, most unsettling studio concoctions yet. It could pass for a spidery Tom Waits demo or the theme for an HBO miniseries about a sad detective.
And then, of course, there’s “Bassackwards.” It’s the beautiful, banal peak of the record, a warning for the purposeful meandering that follows. The album’s structure—with its more accessible tracks up front and a meditative, somewhat indulgent back-half—can feel like a conversation slipping silently into sighing and nodding. At the end of “Bassackwards,” he mumbles, “Just the way things is these days/Just the way things come out.” It’s the type of thing you say when you’re bored and trying to change the subject but it also serves his momentary thesis statement. Vile has long embraced such in-between moments—he’s just never sounded so lost in one.