Kurt Vile is in the doldrums. Smoke Ring For My Halo, the Philadelphia songwriter’s latest, is a weird animal — stubbornly impassive but vaguely miserable, languid, and oppressive as a late-summer scorcher. It’s a stark departure from 2009’s Childish Prodigy. That album was a brilliant, bleary melange of psyched-up Americana wherein new backing band The Violators provided some serious punch for Vile’s stoned folk jams; the singer’s newfound rock swagger proved an invigorating backbone to his sardonic, disjointed anti-narratives.
The Violators return for Halo, but in a more restrained role; likewise, Vile often seems to retreat into a self-contained haze. “Baby’s Arms” opens the record in classic Vile style — it’s a lovely fingerpicked number in the style of God Is Saying This to You pearl “My Sympathy” — but something’s different. Hastily, Vile slurs, “I get sick of just about everyone/ And I hide in my baby’s arms,” concluding, “‘Cause except for her/ There just ain’t nothin’ to latch on to.” Worlds apart from the defiant coolness of “My Sympathy,” the tune introduces the album’s apparent themes: detachment, mistrust, suffocating self-pity.
There are two Kurt Viles at work on Halo. One is the canny, composed genius behind leaked singles “In My Time” and “Jesus Fever,” the album’s two shrewdest tracks, both representing in their surprising focus and marked pop sensibility a departure from Vile’s meandering M.O. The other is Vile at his most unimpressed and, consequently, his most unimpressive. The swirling sonics of “Puppet to the Man” can’t redeem the song’s abrasive, fuck-the-listener attitude. Likewise, “On Tour” (should be called “The Touring Musician’s Burden”) is downright catty: “Watch out for this one/ Standing in the back for fun,” he sings. Again, thanks for being a fan but, y’know, no thanks.
The real shame is that Halo brims with new potential. The aforementioned “In My Time” is total beauty: during its precious few minutes, Vile and The Violators discover a new equilibrium, a sort of gentle enormity. It’s a mature, intriguing development from Vile, who has always been content choosing one path or the other. The folky, absorbing title track, satisfying in its mystery, sounds a little like American Beauty-era Grateful Dead filtered through a millennial-stoner-gaze kaleidoscope. It’s Vile at his most enigmatic (“Smoke ring for my halo/ Angel, demon, human”; also, something about feeling like Rain Man?), but at least, at last, he doesn’t seem so dang dejected.
When I saw Vile and The Violators play a couple months back (I stood right up front, in case you were wondering), I was struck by the muscle of the experience. It wasn’t all sound or volume; Vile and the other musicians just seemed preternaturally locked in, more in sync than just about anyone I’d ever seen. Smoke Ring For My Halo, mired in malaise, does not adequately reflect this. In fact, it all but contradicts it: the LP marks the first time Vile has seemed utterly unsure of himself. For its circuitousness, there’s always been a lean, mean backbone to the guy’s writing; even his most bored-sounding toss-offs came wrapped in barbed wire. Here, he just kinda sounds bored.