What a difference a day makes. The last time Kurt Vile woke up, on 2013’s “Wakin on a Pretty Daze,” all was well in the world. The ringing phone was only a momentary distraction for our bleary-eyed hero, who for all his fatigue seemed in a pretty good mood. “Frankly, I’m fried,” he confessed about halfway through the album’s singularly blissful almost-title track, “but I don’t mind.”
This morning has been a little tougher. “I woke up this morning, didn’t recognize the man in the mirror,” Vile sings on “Pretty Pimpin,” the first track on his recent “B’lieve I’m Goin Down…”. He spends the rest of the song, and much of the album, trying to figure out just who that man is.
The series of washed-out, eight-minute jams that made up “Wakin on a Pretty Daze” suggested a singer content to drift through the world, offering a few pithy observations along the way. But now, Vile turns inward. His new album is sparse and empty, with introspective lyrics replacing open-ended guitar jams. The cover art for his last album featured Vile hanging out in the corner of an open urban scene, but this time, he’s front and center.
Vile’s new attitude came through clearly in his Wednesday performance at the College Street Music Hall. Much of the set featured him on acoustic guitar, and when he did grab one of his signature Fender Jaguars, he rarely turned it up very loud. Vile is a good enough songwriter to keep the audience’s attention with just his voice and some strummed chords. But the show’s best moments came when he cranked his amplifier to 11 and let his prodigious chops do the talking.
The sonic restraint on “B’lieve I’m Goin Down…” is a new trick for Vile, one that he’s still trying to translate to the stage. It was odd to see him quietly pick his way through the intricate electric guitar part on “Wheelhouse,” one of the album’s standout tracks, while a wall of massive Marshall amplifiers loomed unexploited behind him. The point, it seemed, was to leave space for his voice, as Vile’s new album features some of his best and most meaningful lyrics. But Vile slurred his way through the show and rarely owned a vocal performance. When he closed the set with Bruce Springsteen’s “Downbound Train,” a song I know well, I didn’t realize what he was singing until the second chorus.
Some of that sloppiness made its way into Vile’s instrumental performances as well: The bluegrass hook on “Pretty Pimpin” lacked the recorded version’s steady precision. Not that I didn’t enjoy hearing it — it’s a great song. But it’s not a great song of the type Vile usually performs onstage: epic wall-of-sound freak-outs that let him mumble, moan and, most importantly, shred to his heart’s content. Vile doesn’t seem very enamored of drill or precision, and as a result his performance style is a little rough around the edges — more White Stripes than Wilco. That detracts from his new material’s live appeal, but it’s also the exact reason people love songs like “Wakin on a Pretty Day,” which Vile has performed at every concert on this tour. He pulls out all the stops when he plays that song, a nine-minute torrent that swings between searing brilliance and psychedelic contentedness. But angstier emotions drive his new music, emotions that are harder to share and don’t lend themselves to extended guitar solos.
“Wakin on a Pretty Day” was the concert’s highlight because it’s the kind of song Vile knows best. And yet it might frustrate him to hear me say that. Vile’s new album purposefully moves away from the sound that has defined his career, yet fans still just want to hear the song that got him famous. But Vile has to meet his audience halfway. It might frustrate him that we want to hear the old stuff, but that frustration shouldn’t keep him from polishing his new stuff. If he channeled his old energy through his new anxieties, he’d win us over in a heartbeat. Maybe he’s anxious because that’s impossible.