The front cover for B’Lieve I’m Goin Down is the first Kurt Vile album to have Vile’s face not covered by his vast hair or distorted in some way. Instead, it has him sitting forward, looking directly at the camera in mid-guitar-strum like some folk album cover from the 60s. There’s no noticeable colour correction, no artistic flourishes like on Wakin’ On A Pretty Daze or Childish Prodigy. It’s almost laughable, but the expression on Vile’s face is completely serious and sure of himself. That’s because B’Lieve… is his shot at some kind of mainstream success – or at least what counts as mainstream acceptance these says. ‘Pretty Pimpin’, the lead single, meandered gently and turned it up in the last half with some electronic touches, something that worked surprisingly, despite Vile putting all of the hallmarks of sun-kissed americana on his records. He regularly uses the banjo and not in an ironic way – ‘I’m An Outlaw’ makes the banjo sound more badass than whenever he picks up the electric guitar. If Wakin’… was his brush with success, B’lieve is more overtly poppy, but retains a tangible dusty american atmosphere throughout.
Vile’s influence are laid bare across the record. He switches back and forth from acoustic to electric-Dylan, a Mitchell-folkiness and has more than an air of working-class-Joe-Springsteen about him. Vile’s America is the endless desert, dusty highways and mountain ranges in sight, maybe with a ranch farm porch or two. ‘That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate To Say)’ is a fingerpicked lovely which contains stream-of-consciousness ramblings that equal Sun Kil Moon for the storytelling award. Vile admits ‘When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off’ and ‘I wanna run into the rolling hills along some mid-western highway’, painting a vivid picture of his dirty, dusty America. Vile returns to reflection on religion and Jesus when he sings ‘There was a man who touched the lives of many / and when he died he left so many people crying’ before the chorus ‘That’s life though / so sad, so true’. He doesn’t exactly compare himself to Jesus, but he can see the similarities between the successful musician and Jesus. Religion makes a return in ‘Wheelhouse’, where Vile delivers vague criticisms of religion with ‘Some bow down a hundred times a day or more / to find a way, to get back to the temple one day’. Often it seems as though Vile sees the value in religion, but sometimes it seems pointless when, in ‘That’s Life…’, ‘There are scorpions out there’.
Often the instrumentation completes the mood. On ‘Wheelhouse’, Vile’s acoustic finger-picking is jawdroppingly inspiring. He’ll couple the guitar with an instrument you didn’t see coming at all, like the quietly-screaming noises on ‘Wheelhouse’ that are indistinguishable between a guitar, a synth or something else entirely. The same stands for ‘Life Like This’, something of an oddball in the tracklisting with its repetitive piano line and psychedelic synths that kick in irregularly. It breaks the mood, if only for a moment. Similarly, ‘Bad Omens’, an instrumental track, stands out against Vile’s softly spoken folk. Other than these two tracks, B’Lieve… would be a cohesive and wholly immersive experience. But at twelve tracks, Vile hardly misses a beat when constructing his world sonically.
‘Stand Inside’ is one of the most direct ‘love’ songs Vile has ever written and it’s probably the prettiest song on the track. A collision of acoustic guitar and piano, he manages to pull off the track without it descending into a cheesy ballad. He promises ‘Like all the pretty things outside / I’m gonna make you satisfied’ and even a lyric like ‘Oh my god I love you, I love you’ doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. The scarcity of Vile’s love songs makes ‘Stand Inside’ all the rarer as it shines amongst tracks like ‘Dust Bunnies’ or ‘Kidding Around’. The tracks where drums play a larger part: ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or ‘Wild Imagination’ have a grander feel to them and can be hit or miss. ‘Pretty Pimpin’ worked because the groove that Vile plays in feels comfortable and he eventually mixes it up with the extended outro. ‘Wild Imagination’, on the other hand, isn’t too sure whether it wants to be ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or ‘All In A Daze Work’ and ends up having the guitars of a slow, acoustic song but the extra instrumentation of ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or ‘Life Like This’. His stabs at singles aren’t misplaced at all; he can easily knock out ‘Life Like This’ and follow it up with a heart-stabber like ‘Stand Inside’.
Kurt Vile is one of the most talented songwriters in folk and alternative music right now because whatever he touches, he can bend it to his styles and still make it sound like Kurt Vile. ‘Lost My Head There’s electronic pulses never clash violently against the americana like you would think, neither does ‘Life Like This’s psychedelic influences pushing through. What B’Lieve I’m Going Down does is collate everything Vile’s done so far and gives the listener – probably someone new to Vile – a taste of everything. And he does it so well. There is never a real bum note, bar the instrumental track or ‘Life Like This’s experimentalism. Every song plays a part in building Vile’s world up, piece by piece. It’s also his most mainstream release yet, but it does a fantastic job of taking into account everything he’s done up to this point, as well as being an excellent introduction to exploring his back catalogue.
Funnel Recommends: Pretty Pimpin’ / All In A Daze Work / Stand Inside