Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo

written by: March 25, 2011
Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo album cover Release Date: March 8, 2010


To anyone who has seen Kurt Vile perform, head drooped over his guitar, that long mane hiding much of a stone-set face, the musician seems uncomfortably detached. But Vile’s folk-rock tunes portray him as someone more approachable than his surly stage presence would suggest. Like any great artist the press might easily label “singer-songwriter,” Vile strives for a universally human sentiment in his music, even as he soberly walks a shifting line between cold cynicism and openhearted honesty.

Vile begins his latest offering, Smoke Ring for My Halo, with the delicate “Baby’s Arms”. Practically an adult lullaby, the song is undeniably sweet, but almost eerie in its lyrical content. Really, how many people would willingly shrink themselves to Tom Thumb’s diminutive stature so they might hide in their significant other’s hands? Aside from the sonically bookending final track, “Ghost Town,” the rest of the album aims for more of a gut-punch, mainly by way of Vile’s grim-faced, self-deprecating lyrics, such as, “Society is my friend/It makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath.”

Fortunately, Vile never approaches the role of the insufferable curmudgeon, pairing his darker passages with decidedly more lighthearted bits, such as the endearingly self-aware “On Tour.”

Throughout Smoke Ring, Vile’s lyrics indicate a pronounced consciousness of mankind’s shortcomings, yet his refusal to fully succumb to defeatism imbues the album with a heartwarming hopefulness.

Vile’s lyrical prowess seems even more palpable because he acknowledges his limitations as a singer. He never overextends himself vocally. Rather, he emphasizes his characteristic twang to great effect. Just listen to the way he approaches the word “girlfriend” with such down-to-earth playfulness on “Puppet to the Man” and try to hold back a smile.

Also noteworthy, Vile will sporadically rework parts from prior releases. This technique is most prominent on “Runner Ups,” where he appropriates a few lyrics, as well as the melody, from “Red Apples” off 2009’s God is Saying This to You, and manages to sustain an entirely new song from this experiment. This creates a thread through his material that suggests a powerful command over his compositions.

Understandably, albeit predictable, many popular music publications have already made much of the album’s departure from the in vogue lo-fi trappings of Vile’s earlier work. However, what’s most striking isn’t that this batch of songs forgoes a few fuzzy layers, but that Vile seems to have mastered a distinctive brand of craftsmanship, regardless of a certain production aesthetic.

His songs don’t necessarily build to any sort of release so much as they simply yet confidently soldier forward, buoyed by Vile’s tightly constructed, rock-steady songwriting.

This allows for a huge payoff on a track like the previously mentioned “Puppet to the Man,” which chugs with the kind of sturdy, no-nonsense swagger that calls to mind Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” while simultaneously hearkening to past Vile standouts such as “Hunchback” from Childish Prodigy or “Freeway” from Constant Hitmaker.

With Smoke Ring for My Halo, Vile achieves a forward-leaning momentum that only points toward further success in the future. Few artists can smoothly segue into more accessible territory while remaining firmly anchored to methods their earlier achievements yielded. And who knows? He just earned the highly coveted yet dubious “Best New Music” designation from Pitchfork, so maybe they’ll ask him to play their festival again. If so, expect Kurt Vile to wow you.

Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo Tracklist:

  1. “Baby’s Arms”
  2. “Jesus Fever”
  3. “Puppet to the Man”
  4. “On Tour”
  5. “Society Is My Friend”
  6. “Runner Ups”
  7. “In My Time”
  8. “Peeping Tomboy”
  9. “Smoke Ring for My Halo”
  10. “Ghost Town”
  11. “(shell blues)”