Kurt Vile brings his A-game to Bottle It In
With his eternal stoner demeanour belying his prolific musical output, Kurt Vile has just released Bottle It In, his seventh solo studio album in only ten years, not counting the myriad of EPs he produced with The War on Drugs, and last year’s pleasant, if underwhelming, collaborative Lotta Sea Lice album with Courtney Barnett. It might be a bit of a tough sell for casual fans, seeing as it’s basically just 80 minutes of exactly what the American singer-songwriter has been doing all his career – that is, mellow, mildly psychedelic folk rock carried by leisurely noodling on the guitar. However, Bottle It In is easily the liveliest Vile has sounded since 2013’s Wakin on a Pretty Daze and an unexpectedly moving new collection of gorgeously swaying tunes.
It’s easy to take Vile’s modern brand of heartland rock for granted, but think about it: who else is making such effortlessly chill road trip music right now? Several songs, like “Come Again” or “Mutinies”, might sound unremarkable when they first start playing, but one can’t help being sucked in by Vile’s talent for sounding so smooth and relaxed at all times, elevating his ambling compositions with lush solos, droning synths, tinges of psychedelia (like the birds cawing in the background of “Cold Was the Wind”), and the occasional flashes of distortion, all of which coalesce into a beautifully coherent whole through the help of a veteran production team that includes Shawn Everett (Weezer, Kacey Musgraves), Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith), and Peter Katis (Interpol, Frightened Rabbit) next to Vile himself.
Lyrically, Bottle It In is chock-full of Vile-isms, like rhyming “Roger Clemens” with “delirium tremens” on “Cold Was the Wind”, gleefully yee-hawing on “Check Baby”, and accusing his “girl” of giving him rabies on “Hysteria”. Lead single “Loading Zones” not only features the line “Who needs armour when I have an exoskeleton?” but is also a song about evading parking tickets, with the appropriate music video to boot. It is also probably the only song this year outside of Drake’s “Mob Ties” on which you’ll hear the term “lovey-dovey”. “Bassackwards” does its best to make you hate it up front through the sheer cringiness of its title but through later listens, reveals itself as one of the album standouts on the strength of its melody.
Even when covering Charlie Rich’s 1977 US Hot Country Songs #1 “Rollin with the Flow”, Vile makes the original’s devil-may-care attitude so much his own that it’s hard to believe that anyone but him could have come up with the couplet “While guys my age are raising kids / I’m raising hell just like I did”, before imbuing the line “Jesus loves me, yes I know” with a delicious sense of sarcasm that Rich most likely did not intend. Despite still looking like a college freshman whose sense of credibility is calculated from a Length of One’s Hair x Time Passed Since Last Having Washed Said Hair formula, the 38-year-old Vile himself is actually married and raising two daughters, a subject that comes up at the end of “Cold Was the Wind”, which goes from that Roger Clemens/DT bit to meditations on death real quick. In his trademark vaguely stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling, Vile misses his daughters as he’s away on a plane, presumably touring, and starts to wonder what life would be like for them if they lost him forever. “Did I mention that I’m afraid of dying?”, he intimately asks, before ending the song on a note of quiet contentment, as, back home, he picks up his crying daughter and lulls her back to sleep in his arms.
I like to think that the following cut, "Skinny Mini", expands on this father-daughter relationship, but lyrics such as “Bees buzzing baby, we’ll buzz a while” and references to eating her as a sandwich indicate that the “baby girl” in that song is probably not his actual baby girl. Nonetheless, Bottle It In’s second half is notably more introspective, the shift in style marked by the title track, which forms the 11-minute-long centrepiece of the record. Some might consider it overlong and repetitive, but both its length and its use as the album title are nothing if not deliberate. Vile has spoken in the past about feelings of anxiety and depression, and Bottle It In – both the song and the album – addresses those subjects with hard-hitting vulnerability. He sings about suppressing his emotions for fear of being rejected (the bottling it in of the title) and struggling with just getting out of bed in the morning (“I woke up with a black in the whites of my eyes / And a black tongue dragged down the sides”), yet all the while ends up with the rare song about depression that provides comfort and reassurance to the listener instead of dragging them down. You could almost say that Vile uses his art to – well, “exorcise his demons” is a bit much, but you get the idea. In either case, that’s certainly how his songs work on the listener, the title track arriving at a therapeutically hopeful finish all through the gentle rhythms of Vile’s guitar and Mary Lattimore’s harp.
Similarly, the constantly repeating guitar part that forms the backbone to Mutinies mirrors the numbing routine of taking anti-anxiety pills that the lyrics describe, before Vile escapes that rut through the power of jamming, laying down a stunning two-minute-long fingerpicked guitar solo. Now, if you’re listening to Bottle It In in one sitting, its softly relaxing mood might have lulled you to sleep by that point – if so, groovy dreams.