The opening lyric from Kurt Vile’s (watch my moves) single “Flyin (like a fast train)” describes a sensation that just about all of us—musicians, in particular—can relate to in some way after the events of the past few years. “Flyin’ like a fast train, I don’t feel a thing / Till when I pull into my station, I just crash ‘n’ burn,” Vile murmurs, as if dazed. Life stomped on its brakes so abruptly, society got whiplash, and with nowhere to go and worry hanging heavy in the air, we each had to figure out someplace to turn. (watch my moves), the Philadelphia “fried pop” veteran’s eighth solo album (and first for Verve Records), is a psych-folk monument to the WFH era, as a cooped-up Vile alternates between fending off anxiety and finding solace in imagination. Self-produced and home-recorded in Vile’s new studio, OKV Central, with additional recording at Rob Schnapf’s Mant Sounds in Los Angeles, the album sprawls and wanders, but it won’t lose you. It’s like spending an afternoon with that friend who always knows how to make you crack a smile, even when life feels like too much.
Sometimes that grin comes with a wince, even when you know everything will turn out alright in the end. Vile builds album opener “Goin on a Plane Today” around a cutesy piano progression, as if to reinforce the regression into childhood that’s been forced on him by his fear of the flight: “Things gettin’ a little weird / My mind gone foggy, my memory’s unclear / Manhood compromised / Watch me shrinkin’ back into a little kid,” he croons, later adding trumpet alongside James Stewart’s (Sun Ra Arkestra) tenor sax. The idea returns in another form on “Hey Like a Child,” where a woozy, whammied guitar riff conjures Vile’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze days, and an idyllic blur smears across his sunny songwriting as “Hey like a child, you walked into my life” later becomes “Hey like a child, you waltzed into my lights.” A line about being “high as hell on love” borders on schmaltzy, but the rest of the track is painfully sweet, its warm affections like a light amid the album’s lonelier tracks: “Hey like a ray, you shine into my life / Hey like a cure for all things under the sun / In a dream, I drew my blueprint / And it was you on every page that I drew there.”
Vile’s big heart beats on “Say the Word,” as well, where he and his Violators bandmate Rob Laakso trade vocals over a steady low end, acoustic fingerpicking and synth accents. Though Vile spends the song struggling to express himself (“Words to this song, how can I sing to say?”), he clings to one constant in the face of buffeting change: “I don’t know much for true, but I do know the only word is love to see us through / And if I grow into a tree later, well make mine be a beechwood with long limbs / ‘Cause times they be tremblin’, so let me do some of that then in the wind.” It’s one moment of many on the record where Vile retreats into his mind to find solace. “Pink lemonade [pours] from the faucet” on “Flyin (like a fast train),” while on the serene, almost lullaby-like folk ballad “Chazzy Don’t Mind,” Vile and Chastity Belt observe, “That teapot sings in a beautiful falsetto.” In that same verse, he and his collaborators remind us that these fantasies are all around, just waiting to be plucked from the air: “My mind is hummin’ / When I walk, I’m dreamin’, riding skateboards downhill / Smooth hiss of brand new blacktop swells / All just from, well … / I’m really just lookin’ outside from inside.”
Vile’s head may occasionally brush up against the clouds, but his feet are firmly planted. Though on balance, (watch my moves) is somewhat looser and more freewheeling than his 2018 effort Bottle It In, it never feels like Vile is aimlessly indulging—it’s more like he knows exactly who he is, and what he wants to offer in an album. As he sang on Bottle It In’s “One Trick Ponies,” “I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition”—de facto (watch my moves) title track “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)” reflects that, with Vile’s slide guitar, keys and spaced-out vocals casting a swaying psych-folk spell. One track earlier, on lead track “Like Exploding Stones,” Vile finds respite from mental unrest in music (“Feedback massaging my cranium”), but not before electric guitars, synths, shuffling bass and drums, and his falsetto vocalizations all lock into a groove that won’t let up. Later, Stewart’s sax bridge lends the tune a transcendent element, leaving those “exploding stones” behind. Vile rides these grooves, but hops off before they give out, maintaining the spacey, yet self-assured sensibility he’s been honing for years.
Not only does Vile know just what his lane is, he’s also more aware than ever of the larger creative consciousness he’s tapped into—another source of community and comfort in frightening times. On “Goin on a Plane Today,” he takes heart in “Listenin’ to ‘Heart of Gold’ / Gonna open up for Neil Young / Man, life can sure be fun,” while on the breezy twang of “Cool Water,” he pays pretty tribute to Hank Williams and Marty Robbins both. He gives Chastity Belt (or “My girlfriends Chazzybelt”) a shoutout on their easygoing team-up, and duets with Cate Le Bon (over percussion from Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa) on the bright, funny psych-folk of “Jesus on a Wire.” Bruce Springsteen looms particularly large over the record—Vile quotes him on closer “Stuffed Leopard” and covers him on an expansive, atmospheric “Wages of Sin,” which Springsteen has called “one of my best and least-known songs.” (watch my moves) finds Vile connecting with his friends and idols alike, but more than anything, it finds him staying connected to himself—his identity as an artist. “Even if I’m wrong, gonna sing-a my song till the ass crack o’ dawn,” he insists on “Fo Sho,” “and it’s probably gonna be another long song.”
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.