Kurt Vile has consistently, though probably not intentionally, positioned himself as a beloved leader of the common man. His long and windswept hair caresses his flannel-covered shoulders while he finger-plucks his guitar. In the video for his 2013 song "KV Crimes," adoring fans carry Vile on a makeshift throne through city streets. He’s wearing a crown, but he smiles at his subjects like they’re old friends. Two years ago, Vile’s hometown of Philadelphia declared August 28th Kurt Vile Day and presented him with the Liberty Bell Award, a high honor given to locals who have helped "strengthen the system of justice." In interviews, he’s friendly but cautious, like he has things to say but he doesn’t know why anyone would want to hear them. All this power has always seemed to wear on Vile, and on b'lieve i'm goin down… (out tomorrow via Matador) Vile wants to make sure his followers know even kings have bad days.
Even kings have bad days
Despite the fact that Vile started in a band — he was with indie country darlings War on Drugs for their debut album — there’s always been an isolated, singular quality to Vile’s music. Even 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze, the airiest Vile release to date, felt like it was struggling to keep its head above water. On b'lieve i'm goin down… Vile finally gives in to the gravity that’s been pushing on his shoulders for years. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Vile said he wrote the album as if there were no audience, as if he were just some guy at home with a guitar. "I really wanted it to sound like it's on my couch — not in a lo-fi way, just more unguarded and vulnerable." He wrote and recorded much of the LP late at night while his family slept, so the confessional quality of it is as coincidental as it is intentional. If Wakin On a Pretty Daze documented Vile’s ascent to a union leader with a key to the city, b'lieve i'm goin down… is the moment he comes home at night and wonders if it was all worth it.
Vile has always been a complex and intuitive songwriter, and the interiority of b'lieve i'm goin down… lends itself to some of his most concise and reflective lyrics yet. Throughout the album, Vile grapples with existential doubt and a slight unease that comes more from inside than from any external forces. On album opener "Pretty Pimpin" he sings about feeling like someone else: "I woke up this morning / didn’t recognize the man in the mirror / then I laughed and I said, 'Oh silly me, that’s just me.'" On the finger-plucked "That’s Life Tho (almost hate to say)" he reckons with the arbitrariness of existence: "Ain’t it sad the way one can always fake their way through life / But hey, that’s neither here nor there." And on the album’s jazziest track, "Lost My Head There," Vile describes the song he’s singing as an incidental thing written by an unseen third party: "I was buggin’ out about a couple-two-three things / Picked up my microphone and started to sing / I was feeling worse, then the words come out / Fell on some keys and then this song walked out." Vile is at once obsessed with the weight of the world and relieved from the responsibility of dealing with it.
How bout that accent
Giving these lyrics a sense of physicality is Vile’s voice, a strange, lilting thing with an unplaceable accent (it’s not Philly). He wields his vocals like a shield, deflecting consonants and tonguing vowels until they feel right. On "Kidding Around" he stretches every "o" so that it subsumes the surrounding syllables, like a one-man church choir. In "Wild Imagination," his voice cracks in the middle of the word "laughing," a linguistic tick that makes it seem like he’s uncomfortable even thinking about humor.
B'lieve i'm goin down... is melancholy, but it’s not sad, and it’s idealistic, but not exactly hopeful. It doesn’t really fit anywhere (kind of like Vile himself; his name has always looked out of place in the big festival lineups he’s landed on) and that’s what makes b'lieve i'm goin down... work. It’s not quite sure where to find balance, and that’s because Vile is still getting used to being on top, and his crown is getting a little heavy.