In his latest work, Bottle It In, Kurt Vile takes the listener on an episodic journey, oscillating between the sundrenched psychedelia and effortless vocal style that has come to define his style, and drum machine rhythms, synths, and other electronic elements that one expects of a modern pop artist. Despite moments of excess along the way, Vile manages to hone these disparate elements into a work uniquely his own.
In a 13-track album that last over an hour, it can be difficult for any one song to stand out; however, a trio of songs in the heart of the record represent the best mix of Vile’s intention and execution. “Bassackwards” (has there ever been a more Kurt Vile song title?) is the clear high point of the psychedelic folk that pervades the album, featuring reversed guitars loops that nod to the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”, spacey, shimmering synths, and Kurt’s stream-of-conscious ramblings. As though acknowledging that nearly 10 minutes of dazed, ruminative music in the middle of an album could prove fatiguing, Vile offers the listener relief with the next two tracks, “One Trick Pony” and “Rolling with the Flow”. “One Trick Pony,” in particular, acts as the perfect comedown, and “Rolling with the Flow” is tight 3-minute track in which Vile reckons with decision to continue to pursue creativity and live aimlessly at an age where expectations often demand we consider settling down and putting away “immature” pursuits such as a career in rock music. The nonchalance with which he contemplates these ideas brings a level of earnestness to his Vile’s words, rather than coming off as whiney and entitled. This three song run is the clear high point of the record, registering as some of Vile’s best work.
Kurt does his best impression of the archetypal snarling rock star on “Check Baby”, utilizing a crunchier, distorted guitar tone and greater use of his lower register. Vile never takes himself too seriously however, with self-effacingly singing words like “Yeah, check baby, check baby, three, four, five/Never no jive talking turkey, not me.” One of Vile’s greatest strengths is his ability to mix this sort of humor alongside honest reflection in a song like “Mutinies”, in which Vile considers the inextricable link between technology and mental health, saying “The mutinies in my head keep staying/I take pills and pills try and make ’em go away/Small computer in my hand explodin’/I think things were way easier with a regular telephone.”
While the meandering, “no place to be” style of Vile’s songs are vital to their appeal, there are times throughout the album that border on lethargic. Even early on, “Yeah Bones” does little to distinguish itself, and is 5 minutes that probably wouldn’t be missed. The title track “Bottle It In” also drags a bit as the record comes down the back half, with Kurt bringing back many of the same elements on “Bassackwards” without taking them in a new direction. Overall, the album would have likely been more successful had Vile taken the lead from his 2017 collaboration with Courtney Barnett, Lotta Sea Lice, and whittled down to about 45 minutes.
The most interesting blend of hazy dusty folk and indie/electronic comes through in “Come Again”, which seamlessly blends a twangy banjo riff with an undeniably indie guitar line and a pop drum beat. It will be interesting to see if this style develops further and takes on a bigger role in future albums, but for now if offers additional texture, grabbing the listeners attention.
Again the album ebbs, maybe intentionally, winding its way toward the finish line with a blissful disregard for time. Vile’s idle musings on “Cold Was The Wind” and “Skinny Mini”, backed by a melancholy arrangement, bring the energy down as the album draws to a close.
Vile’s abilities as a guitarist and songwriter are undeniable, as his rambling, borderline-apathetic but ultimately playful lyrics stand confidently against his excellent guitar work and growing ability to incorporate new sounds to create interesting wrinkles in his work. While there are moments in which a stronger sense of self-editing would have produced a tighter result, that same seeming lack of focus is also inherent to all that makes Kurt Vile, and this album, so compelling.