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Kurt Vile: Like Exploding Stones and the pain of the creative process

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

Rob Steen

Time to fess up. I was more or less a Kurt Vile virgin until last week. My son, Joe, had raved aplenty but only one song, One Trick Ponies, had seduced my memory. And while that was partly because I was charmed by the way he appeared to be taking the pee out of himself, it was primarily because it was so much fun playing Spot The Influence.

R.E.M., Neil Young, Lou Reed, Willy DeVille and Stan Ridgway were the first five acts that leapt to mind. Throw in a half-sung, half-spoken drawl with an attitude (Reed meets Brando in The Wild One meets Tom Verlaine on prozac?) and it sounded as if Mr Vile had a PhD in Hepcatology. The New York Times headline said it all: ‘Shaggy, Yes, But Finessed Just So’. You don’t keep a major following these days by letting anyone hear or see you sweat.

My first sighting of Mr Vile was his couldn’t-give-a-stuffed-olive persona in the video for Like Exploding Stones, the lead-off single for his new album. He was almost exactly how I had envisaged, down to the long, lank, lifeless hair. He even has the gall to refer to himself in songs as ‘KV’. There’s none of that hard-drinkin’, hard-lovin’, truck-drivin’ man nonsense about Mr Vile.

Until I checked, I even thought his name – which I gleefully remixed as Curt Vial to impress Joe, who is miles more literate than his dad – was some clever-clever postmodern hipster joke: the X Generation’s answer to Napoleon XIV, Sid Vicious, Dee Generate and Bram Tchaikovsky. And calling one’s debut album Constant Hitmaker doesn’t exactly suggest someone with a masters in shyness.

In no way, therefore, did I even half-suspect he really was one of 10 Vile children. Which might explain the intense navel-gazing of the lyrics I encountered when those industrious Spotify algorithms sneaked that fresh offering past my religiously sniffy, born-in-the-Fifties defences.

While absorbing its insidious virtues, I felt duty-bound to check out KV’s cv, especially One Trick Ponies’ 2018 parent album, Bottle It In, KV’s ninth, and his 2017 duets with Courtney Barnett on Lotta Sea Lice. By then, slacker folk-rock had taken a back seat to more ambitious dreamscapes, three of which stretched beyond the 9.45 mark without necessarily justifying such generosity. This time round, on Fo Show, he appears to apologise in advance (‘It’s probably gonna be another long song’) but opts instead for irony, a puny 4.53. In fact, none of the new tracks breaks the eight-minute barrier; the restraint is beneficial.

KV knows what you’re thinking. Name-checking Young from the kick-off (‘Listenin’ to Heart of Gold/ Gonna open up for Neil Young/ Man, life sure can be fun’), we also get a double helping of Springsteen: an intense, moving cover of an outtake, Wages Of Sin, plus, on the delicately beautiful if unexpectedly downbeat closer Stuffed Leopard, a far more familiar refrain: ‘Listenin’ to Candy’s Room because she knows I wanna be Candy’s boy’.

Cue a snipe at Steely Dan (‘Song For My Father was ripped off for Rickie Don’t Lose’) and then the perennial question that plagues all composers:

And these chords here

Who was the first to play ’em?

Well, who could say?

The album title says oodles. Whoever’s bright idea it was to publish it in brackets – (watch my moves) without the capitals – how can you not admire the chutzpah? If it was KV’s own brainchild, more power to him. Short of going for something rude or crude in Russian or Chinese, or doing a Led Zep and not bothering with a title at all, you couldn’t ask for a brusquer rejection of convention. Or a louder, prouder statement of independence.

For the 42-year-old Pennsylvanian who co-founded The War On Drugs with Adam Granduciel, this release marks his major label debut, though he may not give a toss whether he pleases anyone but himself. If so, it shows – in a good way. The packaging may be extremely 21st-century dude-ish, but crass artifice is absent. Say The Word tells you – à la Young’s Borrowed Tune – what a nightmare he had writing it:

Words to this song come and go and fly away

Words to this song how can I sing to say?...

I wrote the words to this song

But they came out all screwed up in the

Mess of the hullabaloo

Grade 1 pianistics to the fore, opener Going On A Plane Today is almost satirically indie, a brief spartan overture that rolls into the more characteristic guitar-bass-drummery of Flyin’ (Like A Fast Train). Then things get interesting.

The first hint of where we’re heading is Palace Of OKV In Reverse, which, like Bottle It In’s addictively meandering Bassackwards, comes all over Tomorrow Never Knows-like before a swirly synthesiser thickens the soup, curling and whirling around your ears until submission is the only option.

While mostly keeping the words minimalist, KV takes a rare detour into poetry on Like Exploding Stones, which takes Bassackwards into more vigorous territory. An epic seven-minute insight into KV’s creative process (and thus a brave choice for first single), a beefier drum-beat, while still sedate, suggests that danceability is not altogether repugnant.

The song begins, deceptively, with more of that droll, demo-flavoured style to which KV is so partial (‘Got me going/ One, two, three, four...Yeah’), before hitting us with a vivid, surreal and terrifying image:

Pain ricocheting in my brain like exploding stones

Thoughts running ’round in my cranium like pinball machine-o-mania

This foreshadows the couplet on Say No Word which captures the album’s theme:

And every time I grow into a man

Chaos coming ’round the bend

This is as naked a glimpse of the creative process as one could wish for, or dread, and the agonies continue:

Thoughts become pictures become movies in my mind

Welcome to the KV hard drive and movie marathon

That hard drive is never short on eye candy. Take Jesus On A Wire, whose verses will doubtless incite a torrent of toxic tweets while reminding R.E.M. aficionados of Stipe & Co’s sweetest tune, Near Wild Heaven:

Jesus on the phone, talking ’bout a nervous breakdown

Even he don’t know how to bail us out of this one

‘What a mess,’ I sing to myself, thinkin’ ’bout another song

I wanna reach out to old Jesus to tell him I, too, feel alone

And I’m here to save you

Jesus on a wire, and he’s lookin’ very tired

And me, I don’t blame him, and I almost want to claim him

So I ring a couple chords out on my Martin Double O

And I see them floating upward and I watch ’em as they go

Into the pockets of Judas Iscariot in the sky

In the achingly gorgeous Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone), we are invited to ‘watch my moves’ – which include, according to KV, The Snake In The Grass’.

Standin’ on top of Mount Airy Hill, thinkin’ about... flyin’

Been around but now I’m gone

Been gone but now I’m going down

Back to Like Exploding Stones, and a reassuring wink – or is it bravado?

But I’m just kiddin’ and I’m just playin’

And this is just the way that I’m makin’ a livin’

Every day, in my mind and in real life too

What mostly sets this dreamscape apart from its predecessors is the vessel that transports those conflicting emotions. A rich, stately cocktail of a groover, it features a heavily processed sax, some graceful Gilmouresque guitar and a sensual mellotron the Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder would have been chuffed to call his own, all hinting again at that inner progger.

As the doubts begin to ebb away, we are given a running commentary, including a grateful nod to Robert Moog himself:

Moog making noise now...

Guitar’s feeding back now...

Feedback massaging my cranium

If that’s what making music does for KV, it’s also what this track, and this album, do for me. It soothes my aching brain while engaging it. It reminds me that rock can still roll, still has some juice in the tank. And never more so than when Like Exploding Stones slinks along to its climax and that sometimes mannered voice dissolves into one of those heart-rending mini-howls of his, this time evoking not just anguish but relief and triumph.

Wherever the new Ibiza may be, I fancy they’ll be seeing the sun rise to this for years to come.


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