OVER THE PHONE, Kurt Vile comes across much like he does as a lyricist: disheveled, distracted, and detached—a loner, a brat, and a wry, irreverent prankster.
B'lieve I'm Goin Down..., Vile's sixth full-length album, was shepherded by similar impulses. It was written and recorded in fits and starts as Vile ping-ponged from studio to studio, entertaining different collaborators and producers along the way. "It's what I always do," Vile says. "You just bounce around 'til it's done. But this one was even more anarchic, I guess."
After recording demos in his hometown of Philadelphia, Vile set out for studio sessions that took him to New York City, Athens, Georgia, and Southern California, with stops in Venice, Burbank, and Joshua Tree. Most of the engagements lasted only a few days.
"I think that it just reached a sort of unorganized—not unorganized, exactly—but it reached this extreme of, I dunno... I guess part of me is, like, a last-minute kind of person," Vile rambles.
As material piled up, Vile found himself wanting an outside hand to help him sift through the tapes. Coincidentally, around that time, veteran producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith) reached out.
"I thought he would just help us mix the record and add little things," Vile says. "But then it ended up [that] when we went over there, I wrote 'Pretty Pimpin' and we recorded it. He recorded the bookend songs on the record, and mixed some of them a fair amount. Then we continued elsewhere. But he was a big help."
"Pretty Pimpin," the album's standout single, distills Vile's essence—dazed zen confusion, dry wit, and crisp finger-picking. It gets critical contributions from Schnapf's glossy production and Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa on drums. Mozgawa, who was also featured on 2013's Wakin on a Pretty Daze, is more forceful and forward here. Her beats are prominent, snappier, and more swinging than on any of Vile's previous work.
And while B'lieve has a few other lilting grooves—like the slinky piano-driven vamps of "Lost My Head There" and "Life Like This"—the new album is mostly characterized by dark, stripped-down pools of acoustic guitar and Vile's wilted croon. The lyrics swim around in Vile's "funky psychosis," as he sings in "Lost My Head There." Often, he presents himself as apart, anxious, and othered—like in "Wheelhouse," when Vile sings, "You gotta be alone to figure things out sometimes/Be alone, when even in a crowd of friends."
But even as he approaches seriousness, Vile often backs off with a shrug or a wink. "When I go out, I take pills to take the edge off," he sings in "That's Life, Tho (Almost Hate to Say)." The verse continues: "Or to just take a chillax, man, and forget about it/Just a certified badass out for a night on the town." And as he's done before, Vile sings about how making music releases the pressure valve.
As such, B'lieve becomes almost a self-help guide for weirdos. Vile says that fans have approached him in the past to share how his music has helped them cope. He truly appreciates the sentiment, though says it hasn't been happening much lately.
"I think these days when I'm playing live I give off more of a goofy persona," Vile says. "So maybe it would be strange to talk about it now." I ask if the "goofy persona" is a way of hedging.
"I don't know why I said that," he says, backtracking.
On the other hand, Vile's guitar playing is austere, precise, and earnest. As an unassailable counterpoint to his jokey kiss-offs and ironic detachment, the guitar is never downplayed, never half-baked. Vile's honest, unadulterated attention is pointed at his note-by-note finger-picking composition and performance.
This clash—of self-doubting, winking, slacker- era ideology against studious and reverent musicianship—explains not only Vile's growing popularity, but also his reaction to it. "I don't feel surprised because I've been working on it obsessively all the time," he says. "It's been a steady evolution. So it's not like, 'Wow!' It's more like, 'Duh.'"