Kurt Vile is a world-class guitar player and a distinctive singer who writes easy to like songs and effortlessly cool lyrics And he’s a master at making not just great music, but good vibes, too.
That’s a lot of positive musical qualities in one guy, and they certainly can add up to a transcendent album experience, as they did on Vile’s 2013 breakthrough Wakin On A Pretty Daze. A slippery synthesis of psych, folk and rock stretched across 70 minutes, Wakin roiled and rambled but never lost momentum, though it teetered on the verge a couple times. (That was part of the charm.)
Vile’s new album Bottle It In is two tracks and nine minutes longer than Wakin, which in and of itself is not a negative, of course. But with a runtime closer to the old 80-minute limit of the compact disc, there’s more pressure on these songs to be strong enough to stand up against our hectic lives and depleted attention spans.
Most do. A few don’t. When all is said and done, Bottle It In feels like the musical equivalent of an excellent 90-minute movie padded with a couple unnecessary scenes to get past the two-hour mark.
There are plenty of high points here, to be clear. “One Trick Ponies” is a mystical love song with a Pavement-y lope that benefits from the unexpected appearance of an lovely backing choir. The robot voice that bookends “Loading Zones” is a fun touch. “Hysteria” burns slowly, with Vile’s wandering drawl dragging behind an rippling guitar line. Philly harpist Mary Lattimore’s pretty playing lightens the title track, which smolders to a soldierly rhythm. And “Come Again,” which rides one distant banjo riff for nearly six full minutes, sounds like an Appalachian drone-folk tune dipped in big-city daydreams and left out in a Mid-Atlantic summer to dry.
The centerpiece here is “Bassackwards,” a 10-minute tune built around a hypnotic beat and a ever-shifting swirl of backmasked guitars. Lyrically, it reads like a travelogue of Vile’s day-to-day life, or perhaps a stoney poet’s manifesto:
I was on the moon, but more so I was in the grass
So I was chilling out but with a very drifting mind
So I was on the ground, circa planet Earth, but out of sorts
But I snapped back, baby, just in time
to jot it down and come around
Bottle It In sags, though, near its middle and end. A cover of Charlie Rich’s 1977 country hit “Rollin’ With the Flow” is faithfully and competently executed, but feels like a perfect B-side rather than an album cut. “Check Baby” starts off low and grimy but then never climbs out of its rut…and then it compounds that problem by spinning its wheels for eight minutes.
Later, “Cold Was The Wind” wastes some cool, woozy production choices with its aimlessness, and “Skinny Mini” indulges Vile’s interests in repetition and near-spoken vocals, interspersing lines about a “freewheeling lady-baby” among two arpeggiated guitar chords for more than 10 minutes. Cut this track alone and you’ve got the album down under 70 minutes long.
That “Skinny Mini” even sounds like a reasonable inclusion here is a testament to Vile’s mastery of stylish nonchalance. And there’s plenty of that all over Bottle It In. So don’t worry: If at any point you find yourself starting to lose interest, just wait; something good will be along soon to snap you back into head-bobbing bliss.