Of the various objections that fellow TMTer Gabe Vodicka raised over Kurt Vile’s 2011 commercial breakthrough Smoke Ring for My Halo, the one that stood out the most was his dismay over what he perceived as an increasing sense of insularity and self-involvement for Vile, an apparent desire to keep his listeners at arm’s length. Although lacking the kind of audience-baiting lyrics of songs like “On Tour,” that widening sense of aloofness remains on Wakin On A Pretty Daze. Yet what’s interesting is that doesn’t appear to be the artist’s intention. In his interview with Pitchfork’s (and formerly TMT’s!) Larry Fitzmaurice, Vile admits “It’s all autobiographical,” but then clarifies “I always leave enough distance so that it’s relatable.” Relatability isn’t always apparent, though. Perhaps it’s the abstruse, “anti-narrative” quality of his lyrics or the vaguely bored-sounding cadence of his voice, but even Vile’s most overtly passionate material sounds a little cool and distant.
This conflict between emotional distance and a desire for immediacy can be heard in the music itself. While Vile’s albums have traditionally split time between fingerpickin’ folk and shambolic slacker rock, Wakin tilts the equation slightly towards the latter. But along with this more muscular (and perhaps populist) approach, Vile also experiments with more expansive song structures, with more than half of the songs clocking in at over six minutes, with the longest surpassing the 10-minute mark. At first glance, the lengthier tracks feel like a welcome development. Opening (and almost title) track “Wakin on a Pretty Day” is about as fine an example of slacker-rock as you could ask for. Its melody unfurls lackadaisically, making space here and there for an unassuming guitar solo, and before you know it, nine minutes have gone by. The slow-building “Girl Called Alex” finds similar success by slowly piling on layers of keyboard, strings, electronic effects, and electric guitar atop Vile’s simple, repetitive guitar figure.
The remaining longer joints tend to wear out their welcome pretty quickly, though. The Krautrock-y “Was All Talk” tries to recapture some of “Freak Train’s” motoric groove, but quickly dissolves into monotony. Then, of course, there’s “Too Hard,” which, despite some truly gorgeous fingerpicking and lap steel guitar, never quite coalesces into something interesting (it doesn’t help that the song features one of the album’s most somnolent vocals). Even the album’s shorter offerings suffer from the same spottiness. “Never Run Away” and “Shame Chamber” both display Vile’s talent for shrewd songcraft to excellent effect, but the “Rebel Rebel”-aping “KV Crimes” feels like a pointless exercise in glam rock homage, while “Pure Pain’s” dynamic shifts between the sharp “plugged” verses and the spacier acoustic ones come off feeling like a forced marriage between two different and not totally interesting songs.
In his dealings with the press, Kurt Vile comes across as modest and workmanlike, someone who is grateful to be making a living off his art, but at the same time self-conscious about wanting to provide more for his family and reluctant to spend time apart from them while touring. It’s perhaps this division of loyalty — between career and family — that could account for his air of detachment. So much of rock ‘n’ roll is artifice, creating the illusion that a connection is occurring between musician and listener, convincing the audience that this sonic artifact culled from the artist’s own subjective experiences and observations somehow, in part, belongs to them as well. Vile’s world is all his own, though, and if you can’t see your own way into it, he’s not going to bend over backwards to clear you a space. Nonetheless, the songs of his that have stood out most are the ones that at least try to meet the listener halfway, the ones that betray the deep-seeded enthusiasm underlying Vile’s laid-back, stoner(-esque — he’s a family guy, now) cool. While such material can still be found on Wakin on a Pretty Daze, locating it is becoming more and more of a chore.