B'lieve I'm Goin' Down
By Maura McAndrew | 30 October 2015
Kurt Vile and I have been fighting for a while. When Smoke Ring for My Halo came out, I preached its gospel to anyone who would listen; I saw him twice in concert in the span of a year; I had full-blown Kurt-mania. Then Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze firmly dulled my fervor—a couple of listens, and it sits on the shelf (my feelings spelled out more clearly here). So, I haven’t come to B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down expecting it to soothe my previous disappointments, though B’lieve does mark a return to the more stripped-down style of Smoke Ring. Still: where that record made Vile’s guitar its centerpiece, B’lieve is quieter, and much more weary. While some of B’lieve feels like it’s just going through the motions, there are moments when Vile turns his weariness into something more. Unfortunately, such moments are fleeting.
Throughout his six-album career, Vile has occasionally adopted a mock-persona of a certain type of Chill Dude, the kind who acts as though his chillness is an essential part of his being, man and that life happens. Or as Vile put it in “On Tour,” “It’s just me / Bein’ me / Bein’ free.” But another—more neurotic and human—side still peeks through in certain lines (a sampling from Smoke Ring): “I get sick of just about everyone / And I hide in my baby’s arms;” “I don’t wanna work but I don’t wanna sit around / All day, frownin;” “Pullin’ over on the shoulder / Ain’t trying.” These lines point to dual fears: a fear of being out in the world and integrated into a larger society, and a simultaneous, paradoxical fear of becoming closed-off and useless to any greater community. On B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down, the climate has shifted. The fear of being out in the world is still there, but now it’s a fear that must be confronted—remaining closed-off is no longer an option when you’re a successful indie rock star. And Vile confronts his fear in these songs with a paper-thin persona, often undercut by ill-concealed disdain.
It’s quite possible I’m reading too much into it all—the drowsy, lackluster melodies, the lyrics about being tired and unrecognizable to oneself, the no-effort slump-shouldered record cover—but B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down seems soaked to the skin with self-loathing, or at least loathing of the Chill Dude persona, once an outfit to be tried on and removed but now stuck firmly in place, a hallmark of a Kurt Vile record. The Chill Dude is blissed-out on pills; he’s drifting from one party to another, unbothered and unknowable. He’s reckless and confident: “I’m an outlaw,” he smirks, “on the brink of self-implosion.” And then there’s “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say it),” which feels like the centerpiece of B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down. Vile sings flatly, “When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off/ Or to just take a chillax, man and forget about it / Just a certified badass out for a night on the town / Ain’t it oh-exciting, the way one can fake their way through life / Hey, but that’s neither here nor there.”
B’lieve, then, translates lyrically as a critique of the shallowness of the Chill Dude persona, of the indie genre often called, cringingly, “slacker rock.” There’s also a frustrated sense of boredom in Vile’s mumbled delivery, in his plodding melodies. Take the piano-based lullaby “Life Like This,” where Vile sings, “Wanna live, wanna live / A life like some / Young and dumb and full of / ‘Come on over to my house—there’s a party goin’ on here’ all the time / Wanna live, wanna live / A life like mine.” And then there’s the single “Pretty Pimpin’,” in which Vile confronts the Chill Dude face to face. He sings, “I woke up this morning / Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror,” and later explaining, “All he ever wanted was to be someone in life that was just like / All I want is to just have fun / Live my life like a son of a gun!” “Pretty Pimpin’” comes across jokingly, but it wallows in a real sense of defeat as well: Vile doesn’t recognize himself, but all he can do about it is laugh.
While B’lieve I’m Goin’ Down, at least as far as its words are concerned, is more interesting than it appears on the first few spins, that’s not quite enough to make it a memorable listen. There are some very pretty tracks here, as to be expected, like the optimistic strumming of “Wild Imagination” and the darker “Stand Inside.” But the best song on the record is the Elliott Smith-esque “All in a Daze Work,” which pairs an off-the-cuff, spellbinding melody with couplets written in disappearing ink (“Guess I got my mind well-twisted / Didn’t I well…”). Here, Vile isn’t preoccupied with identity, standing outside of himself looking in. Rather, he’s completely inside himself. And this is where he thrives—not looking into mirrors, or fake-boasting about the trappings of a life he doesn’t want. He’s singing to himself in an empty room, after the kids have gone to bed. This is the Kurt Vile that’s not actually that tired, not actually that sick of everything—the Kurt Vile that probably just needs a long break.
(Cover photo: Marina Chavez)