The album cover art of Kurt Vile’s latest album, Bottle It In, makes me laugh whenever I see it. Yeah, making your album cover look like a retro worn 70’s LP is a year or two past when that was the “cool” thing to do, but I can get past that because it does fit the music within. It’s the kinda dopey crooked smile Vile sports, a “Hey dude! Like, this is my record!” that makes me like the artwork. His vocals are draped in an early Tom Petty-esque lugubrious southern drawl (which is odd since he’s from Philadelphia), which only furthers the affable stoner effect once the music is cued up.
Yet, Vile is smarter than he looks. There’s a lot of craft and hooky songwriting in this album. And he’s got a bit higher profile these days due to his recent collaboration with Courtney Barnett on Lotta Sea Lice. This is his seventh solo album, and back in 2005 he co-founded The War on Drugs with Adam Granduciel (though left soon after to focus on his own music.) In short, he’s been around a while and learned a few things on the way.
That said, Bottle It In, at 80 minutes, could have used some editing. A very strong opening series of songs gets bogged down in the middle and loses some steam by the time it gets to the ten-minute title track. Many of the songs are built around a repeating drum/bass/guitar riff, almost like loops, which can get tedious in that title song and to some degree in “Mutinies.” Other times, however, it works – as in “Bassackwards,” which is anchored by backwards-tracked electric guitar overlayed with hypnotic acoustic guitar, Mary Lattimore’s harp, and a steady drum thump which reminds me of old Neil Young tracks like “Out On the Weekend.”
Vile is a guitarist first and foremost and the sounds he wrests from his instrument are a joy to revel in. The twang, chime and fuzz of “Loading Zones” and “Check Baby,” the pairing of guitar and glockenspiel(?) on “Hysteria,” the way around the halfway mark in “Skinny Mini,” when the vocal gets buried in a glorious tidalwave of guitar.
About those vocals: the lyrics on this album are pretty loopy in general… seemingly stream of consciousness monologues, sometimes seeming to rhyme just because Vile came up with a word that sounded like another, not necessarily because the words make any sense together. Some highlights (lowlights?): “The little man in my head take over / Drive me man and then it drive away in a Land Rover” and “Its like mm girl, you gave me rabies / And I don’t mean maybe.” I’m not sayin’ I necessarily find this a problem with the album… sometimes it can be quite entertaining.
Just when it starts to get a bit overbaked, though, Vile will insert a song like “Rollin’ with the Flow” – a straightforward tale of staying young at heart, in the style of a classic 60’s or early 70’s John Prine/Jerry Jeff Walker-style country/folk/rock song. Or “Come Again”, a taut banjo-based folk rocker that once again recalls Neil Young. In fact, Young’s 1974 On the Beach album haunts the scenery of Bottle It In, both musically and lyrically. From “Come Again”: “Come on down / The world had better turn around” which echoes “The world is turnin’ / I hope it don’t turn away” from Young’s “On the Beach,” and Vile’s “Bassackwards”: “I was on the beach but I was thinkin’ about the bay,” and “I was on the radio talking with a friend of mine” recalling Young’s “I went to the radio interview, but I ended up alone at the microphone.”
The spooky, gothic “Cold was the Wind,” placed near the end of the album, is a return to Vile’s lo-fi roots. Along with the aforementioned “Rollin’ with the Flow” and “Come Again,” these relatively shorter songs break things up, add diversity and help keep what could have been an overly abstracted album interesting.
Through it all, Vile sounds nothing if not confident, making Bottle It In a highlight of his career and a fun album to listen to even though it’s not perfect (but then, what is?)