Smoke Ring for My Halo
By Maura McAndrew | 16 March 2011
Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo is, for lack of a better phrase, obsession-worthy: a piece of work so lyrical and self-contained it not only fails to ever grow old, it radiates clarity and ease with such effortless intensity it can’t help but come off as a whole, as a complete, well-rounded musical experience. It’s also pretty rare in that respect; the last record to make the cut for me was Girls’ Album back in 2009. Perhaps I just have a thing for long-haired introspective types; or perhaps both albums are classic growers, collections that seem warmer and wittier and more gorgeous with every obsessive listen.
It seems this is the record 2009’s Childish Prodigy was warming up for. Prodigy was an admirable effort, but it also suffered from iffy production and an undercooked vision. To say that Smoke Ring for My Halo is cleaned up isn’t quite enough—the record is remarkably spacious and loose, with bright, Dylan-esque guitar at its center. Vile and his small band keep all full and ethereal, a combination of keyboard, harp, slide guitar, and Mellotron orbiting Vile’s core. From the opening lullaby, “Baby’s Arms,” through rambling closer “Ghost Town,” Smoke Ring is buoyed by a pervasive lightness, ambling along easily, sneering, shrugging, and yearning all in equal measure. Come for the hooks, but stay for the charmingly balanced sense of tone.Smoke Ring has that lonely-strumming-troubadour thing going for it, which might read as melancholy, but to compensate Vile touches on a lot of playful humor for tracks like “Puppet to the Man” and the absurd, bouncy “Jesus Fever.” His shtick isn’t so much one of self-pity as it is a smirking mash-up of singer-songwriter melodrama and rock star bravado. “On Tour” explores the former by letting lines like “I wanna write my whole life down / Burn it there to the ground” flow into winking platitudes: “Cuz that’s just me / Being me, being free.” Alternately, he exercises his don’t-give-a-shit attitude in “Runner Ups,” imploring all to “take a whiz on the world.” But, when these personas drain away, Vile’s voice is that of someone on the outside looking in, of someone shrugging off emotions and throwing up psychic barriers with lines like “Sometimes I get stuck in a rut, too / It’s ok, girlfriend.”
Smoke Ring really comes together in its second half; the songs are slower, sparser, and deliberate. “In My Time” is perfect jangly indie pop, like those great songs Mike Mills used to write for R.E.M. (“Near Wild Heaven” anyone?) in their heyday, and “Peeping Tomboy” has a similar hypnotic quality. When only guitar backs Vile’s lazy drawl, it’s reminiscent of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” but this time the protagonist is, predictably, a bit more removed: the object of his attention is simply “some girl”; instead of declaring love he mumbles, “I admired her.” Closer “Ghost Town” nails down Vile’s persona in a ghostly two-chord epic, proffering a meandering philosophy of life from someone trying hard to ignore nagging, latent unhappiness. It’s the perfect way to end the album. Vile assures himself in a flat voice, “Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes / I don’t pay ’em any mind.”
Despite the second half’s minor leg up, the songs on Smoke Ring for My Halo flow together so consistently it’s hard to play favorites. No filler exists here at all, nothing to skip; here a relaxed vibe belies the fact that each track has been carefully calibrated, crafted, and placed. As a result, each track seems to have a unique raison d’être, though each track is the accumulation of the same factors—the complex voice, the airy tone, the sparkling indie-pop hooks—that make Smoke Ring for My Halo so obsession-worthy.
Vile has slyly written pop that enters one’s head without leaving much of a permanent mark; instead of a distraction from one’s deeper woes, it’s chameleonic accompaniment. It casts a spell, say, walking home in the rain at midnight. Which I know well, because it did that to me—from the opening notes of “Baby’s Arms,” it poured into my rain-soaked head, and I, powerless to stop it, gave in, welcoming whatever else it could happen to soundtrack, making that whatever else warmer, wittier, and more gorgeous than it was before Vile graced it with his touch.