There’s a moment about 20 seconds into Wakin on a Pretty Daze when you figure this new album’s going to be pretty different from Kurt Vile’s previous album. Vile hasn’t even started singing yet when, midway through the intro, his guitar lets loose a pretty little trill. “La dee da dee da,” it giggles, way up high. “I have all the time in the world.”
It’s a showoff move, a quick hammer-on and pull-off times two that spins around like a pirouette on a single finger. It’s the kind of trick a guitarist plays just for fun — just to show you, you know, that he can. If Vile’s touch weren’t so delicate, it would be self-aggrandizing, but as it stands, it’s gorgeous. The quick notes gather into a shimmering puddle of delay. Vile hits his high note casually, off the beat, then meanders back down the scale to the first verse. The whole solo comes off as less “Hotel California” than “Hotel California” floating on a cloud 6,500 feet above the ground. When the cloud bursts, the raindrops slide gently down your window.
You might have anticipated this much art for art’s sake coming sooner or later from Vile, whose 2011 breakout album Smoke Ring for My Halo sounded like a sublimely talented guitarist limiting himself to three chords per minute in order to appease the indie-pop gods. You just might not have expected Vile’s aestheticism to emerge so unapologetically, and so soon. After all, the sacrifices he made in Smoke Ring brought him that elusive halo of success.
When minimalism worked for Vile on Smoke Ring, it really worked. The four-note guitar solo that overtook “Society Is My Friend” sounded as inevitable and all-consuming as a giant wave because nothing else in the song had done anything that definitive beforehand. A good idea sounds huge when you give it enough space, and producer John Agnello knew it, and gave Vile a veritable Grand Canyon of room to breathe in. But some people dismissed Vile as a slacker, because he was mumbling to himself, and a lot of the time, lounging on that big, comfy sofa of reverb, he was only really hitting one note.
Nevertheless, the Fahey-esque finger picking of “Baby’s Arms” and “Peeping Tomboy” suggested that somewhere in those so-called stoner couch sessions lay a guitarist who could really play, who had a great deal of love for his instrument, and knew how to extract all sorts of rare feelings from it. It was impossible to hear the precision and care with which Vile defined his sound on Smoke Ring without realizing he’d spent more time than most of us studying how the titans of classic rock got their power. How did he make his electric guitar sound evoke Springsteen’s? How did he drag the ends of his words up and down like Bob Dylan without sounding like a fake? How did he arrange those four or five different reverb and delay pedals in combination to make the acoustic guitar sound like the Eagles? I kept on waiting to hear Vile take all that accumulated knowledge, and, you know, rock.
Finally, with Wakin on a Pretty Daze, Vile’s fingers are taking us to the limits of his daydreams. It’s a joy to follow along as Vile floats through the vast expanse of his inner life, below him, the whole universe laying out a beautiful bed for us to daydream in, too. The opening track, “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” which sails effortlessly past the nine-minute mark, feels like a masterful Neil Young solo that never gets old because in every note, you hear the signature of the man behind it. I’ll be damned if anyone could fake the complete flowering of self-discovery.
Remarkably, what we’re hearing from Vile is not a rip-off of Young’s latest single, “Ramada Inn,” or a rehashing of “Downbound Train” by Springsteen, (although “Wakin on a Pretty Day” comes pretty close to both in terms of melody and feel), but rather Vile’s singular ability to internalize several decades of musical history and envision himself as a member of the pantheon. Now some small part of the grand tradition of the lone American troubadour belongs only to him. He is a natural and unaffected heir to its tropes of the individual. And by now, on his fifth album, he sounds like an elder statesman of a country of his own making — one located somewhere between past and present, inside and outside, complete isolation and complete connection. While Vile used to work as forklift operator to support his musical non-career, and found it difficult to support his growing family, now he can rest among his accolades, and enjoy his newfound sense of security. He doesn’t have to make every single note mean everything anymore. Why play just one note when you can play forever?
Vile’s newest songs unfold in their own kind of time, the time it takes for a melody to grow and change, and his voice travels the road of the melody, never forcing it anywhere or losing it anywhere either. He lets the tail end of his words trail like smoke out of an airplane. You’re left with skywriting that dissipates into the atmosphere of a world that’s entirely Vile’s own. Although he can still drop in a heavy riff or two to fire up the ignition, there’s little in the way of verses or choruses driving these songs. Rather, the point of them seems to be their lack of edges. “Shame,” as he sees it, is just a “chamber” where you get trapped looking at yourself in the mirror. So, in his newfound freedom, Vile looks out at the world, finding edgeless landscapes of snow and sky. “Snowflakes are dancing,” he sings, “Discman is pumping, headphones are loud, chillin’ on a pillowy cloud.” He intones those (potentially hokey) lines with such conviction that they start sounding like something of a personal statement about what it means to be an artist: Vile looks out and in at the same time. He’s never lonely although he’s always alone.
Vile’s lyrics float through liminal spaces, weaving in and out of hotel rooms, lazy days, that “crack of dawn” half-light when the house feels completely silent, the time late at night when his wife and kids have gone to bed and he’s all alone with his thoughts, and the weird, spacey mind of a touring musician who gets the road stuck in his head like a never-ending song and can’t seem to forget it, even when he’s back home again. “When I’m away out there, I want to go home. When I am home, my head stays out there,” Vile confesses. He doesn’t sound particularly worried about it, the way the inner life piles up in snowdrifts so high he could come close to losing himself in it. In “Goldtone,” he explains, “Sometimes, as I’m floating away, I wish I could stay. Then I arrive.”
Vile’s achieved something remarkable here, which is to create in us the feeling of music’s spontaneous arrival, the feeling of how the songs feel to Kurt Vile when they come to him. Initially, I had a hard time finding the vulnerability on an album where Vile’s boasting, “There was a time when they thought I was all talk/Now I’m being stalked by gods,” and “Making music is easy/Watch me.” But now I think I’ve found it — he’s letting us in.