The sixth track on Kurt Vile’s latest opus is titled ‘Rollin’ With the Flow’ helpfully encapsulating the ambling, shambling rhythms and can kicking nonchalance the Philadelphia songwriter has long been celebrated for. As always with Vile’s work though, clouds are never too far from spoiling his sunny skies and Bottle It In sees the darker depths of his artistry grow ever murkier.
Typically preoccupied with Vile’s dazed yet disarmingly astute ponderings and observations, Bottle It In succeeds in creating an intensely personal connection with the listener, often lending the impression that we have a direct link to Vile’s inner monologue. Musically, the album maintains the sense of warm approachability that Vile has all but mastered, building upon the work of fellow country rock subverters like Neil Young and Tom Petty to conjure up instantly memorable and pleasingly familiar chord progressions, brightening his palette further with waves of extraterrestrial feedback and sparkling guitar arpeggios.
Packed to the gills with twangy, slanted guitar solos and Vile’s wry turn of phrase, ‘Loading Zones’ may well be the strongest opening gambit of his career. Built upon a tumbling cascade of nimble finger picking and crunchy chords, the scofflaw ode to petty parking violations and his beloved neighbourhood of Fishtown PA is a truly joyous thing. The triumphant shouts of “I Park for Free!” perfectly convey the singular joy of achieving small victories against authority and beg to be yelled out by adoring fist pumping crowds at a festival near you.
As always, Vile’s six string alchemy take’s centre stage for much of the album’s runtime, not least on the meditative ‘Hysteria’ and the driving ‘Yeah Bones’. The former track exits in a hazily narcotic mist, punctuated by huge layered guitar chords which chime like
church bells throughout the melancholy track as Vile tussles with the complex dichotomies of life; at once celebrating and feeling trapped by the chaos that surrounds him. “Stop the plane ‘cause I wanna get off”.
‘Yeah Bones’ meanwhile is the most unabashedly uptempo number here, almost straying into the realms of power pop. The tricky double time acoustic guitar lick duels and interlocks with a jaunty electric guitar riff creating a sound every bit as ebullient as an eighties classic by the likes of The Cars.
Always a playful and abstract lyricist, many of the song’s on Bottle It In see Vile revel in the shape and sound of his word combinations and off kilter phrasing and he clearly relishes in the assonance and internal rhyme of lines like, “Took a drink of a dream smoothie and now I’m feeling very loopy.” But in much the same way that his melodies belie great sophistication the songwriter’s muttered philosophies and drawled wordplay also conceal real wisdom. ‘Bassackwards’, a track which Vile has described as, “ the beating heart of the album…” once again seems to explore the singer’s complex and ever changing views on life’s unrelenting mess, the fraught and very possibly futile path toward satisfaction and the traumas we all deal with along the way, “I was on the ground but looking straight into the sun But the sun went down and I couldn’t find another one.”
Coming to an end after almost ten minutes, the lush acoustic track full of harmony and backmasked guitar represents a sea change of sorts on Bottle It In, paving the way for it’s ominous and sprawling second act which sees themes of personal discord take root and runtimes stretch to the ten minute mark and beyond.
From the raucous face-melter ‘Check Baby’ to the duelling banjos and close harmonies of the foreboding ‘Come again’ it is clear that all is not well in Vile-ville. The haunting ‘Mutinies’ strips back much of the lyrical camouflage in its barefaced examination of mental illness and the damaging role technology and substance abuse play in the unravelling of our delicate minds, “I take pills and pills, try and make ’em go away. Small computer in my hand explodin’…”
The album’s real concluding statement though is surely the glacial epic ‘Skinny Mini’. Built on a ringing two chord arpeggio the darkly glittering track is as vast and boundless as a night sky leaving ample room for Vile’s breathtaking guitar fills and the constantly changing flurry of colourful descriptors that he showers upon the eponymous ‘Skinny Mini’. “She’s a freewheelin’ lady, baby high-strung well-off in the brains and she means way well…”
Vile’s dawdling rhythms and diffuse, long form song structures can often alienate the uninitiated, but searching for tangible structure or obvious meaning in his songs entirely misses the point. The musical sands of these tracks sift and shift so gradually that one barely notices the changing landscapes forming around them, place yourself wholeheartedly in Vile’s capable hands though and Bottle It In makes for an immersive cosmic journey through the joys and anxieties of modern life. James Cox