Prior to hearing Smoke Ring for My Halo in full, the two Kurt Vile songs I came across via numerous blogs were “In My Time” and “Jesus Freaks.” Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the two most upbeat tracks on the album, and the two most focused. The majority of the rest of Smoke Ring depicts Vile as a smart but apathetic songwriter. Writing for Coke Machine Glow, Christopher Alexander said “Kurt Vile’s music sounds like it was made entirely from bed on Sunday mornings,” which I think is a pretty vivid portrayal of the mood of this record.
I picked up Smoke Ring for My Halo three or four weeks ago now, but put off spending a lot of time with it because I got the War on Drugs’ Slave Ambient at the same time; since the two records share a certain degree of aesthetic similarities, I wanted to take them in one at a time and not confuse or bias my ears. Vile is a former member of the War on Drugs, a fact that is coincidental to my getting both records at the same time. That band’s singer, Adam Granduciel, has certain similarities to Vile—they both follow in a vocal lineage that descends from Bob Dylan and passes through Bruce Springsteen, among others. The War on Drugs have a bigger sound (chalk it up to being a full band and not a solo artist?), but there is still an element of numbness in both artists’ music.
A better contemporary comparison for Vile might be Cass McCombs. Many of Vile's songs are repetitive, a little strange, and morose, not unlike McCombs' pitch-dark songs (McCombs would win a competition for those descriptors, however). All of these songwriters, each in their own way, proffer a kind of detachment in their songs.
Is this a full-blown trend among contemporary (male) songwriters? Dylan's delivery by way of a Gen X slacker attitude, filtered through a 21st century glaze? (And it does seem to be a guy thing; some of the best or most renowned female songwriters of recent note—St. Vincent, Feist, Sharon Van Etten—are all writing much more direct, powerful, often virtuosic material. It's a flip from the past clichés of the tortured man and the forlorn girl.)
Vile, McCombs, and Granduciel are all part of a traditional songwriters' lineage. It's easy to hear varying degrees of Dylan, Cohen, Springsteen, (early) R.E.M., and (early) Elliott Smith, among others, in their songs. But the new wrinkle for this group of contemporary songwriters is that they seem to reflexively put the listener at arm's length—obscuring songs through production techniques, drowsy vocals, obtuse (post-Stipe?) lyrics. We've moved past the protests of the 60s (Dylan, Ochs), the blown-up drama of the 70s (John, Joel), the middle-class solidarity of the 80s (Springsteen, Mellencamp), the disillusionment and personal struggles of the 90s (Cobain, Smith), into the Age of Terror and information overload of the new century, where a popular response to The Way We Live Now is introversion, or at best an avoidance of speaking for anyone but oneself. There are few, if any, bold statements through song anymore. (Alternatively, you could call this a subset of a larger trend in [indie?] music that goes beyond guy-with-guitar songwriters and also includes a great deal of shoegaze-influenced atmosphere-rock of the last few years.)
Which is not to say there is necessarily some essential thing missing from Vile and McCombs' songs. (It's worth noting that McCombs, Vile, and the War on Drugs all made songs that appeared on my list of favorite tracks of 2011; McCombs' "County Line" is probably among my top three favorites, though I didn't care much for the rest of the album from which it came.) McCombs and Vile are both smart, literate songwriters, even if their songs rarely reveal true passion—that is, some kind of emotion or sense of urgency that, borrowing from Alexander's line above, would require them to get out of bed. That seems to be intentional on their part: it's not that they lack passion, but rather that the suppression of passion is part of their MO. Take Vile's "Society is My Friend," at the center of Smoke Ring—also the song that most reminded me of McCombs and kicked off this whole train of thought. Like a lot of McCombs' songs, it is long, repetitive, and filled with vivid if strange imagery ("Society is my friend / he makes me lie down in a cool bloodbath"). Vile tells of how his "friend" took his woman from him—"He stole my old lady, saying... kiss me with your mouth without closing it all that much." Society is an entity that is beautiful and dangerous and impossible to fight:
Society is all around
Aw, hear the beautiful sound
Of all the high-pitched squeals
Ecstatic brilliance at its finest
That's my friend
Society is all around
It takes me down
Over five and a half minutes Vile oozes his lyrics amid a swirl of music that nearly consumes him. He's not fighting something, he's allowing it happen around him. Life can be hard, think I'll stay in bed.