The Tragedy And Comedy Of Kurt Vile: Searching For An Identity In The New Americana

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Just under 10 minutes into an interview with Kurt Vile, the Philadelphia-based musician has already mentioned Charley Patton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Rusty and Doug Kershaw, Palace Brothers, Beck, Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Steely Dan, Yo La Tengo, Silver Jews, Sinead O’Connor, and the Cranberries among the huge swath of artists he still listens to.

“When something’s pretty,” Vile says. “It’s pretty. I feel like today it’s wide open. You’re allowed to like anything you want.”

This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who follows Kurt Vile. He’s not someone who can easily be put in a box – as a musician, or as a human being. Vile is promoting his new album b’lieve i’m goin down… with a series of interviews a couple weeks before the record’s release. At this point in the day, it’d be understandable if he kept his answers curt or to the point, but that’s far from the case.

You can hear the ellipses and parentheses in Vile’s voice as he’s trying – really trying – to come up with answers to questions that will be satisfactory to him, and not just the person interviewing him, even if it means he can’t come up with a definitive answer at all. The conversation shifts to trying to define today’s interpretation of Americana music, but he’s hit a wall.

“I guess maybe Americana was a word with a definition, and now it probably doesn’t even exist as much,” Vile says. “When did it start being Americana, and when did it change? I don’t know exactly what Americana is anymore. It’s like old-time folk traditionalists mixed with rock and roll. It’s hard to say what the hell it is. I think somewhere along the line … like five to 10 years ago, it became alt-country or something. But I respect American music, and I also know what they’re saying. I understand what they’re trying to put into words.”

Vile laughs and takes a second to collect his thoughts. And he finally comes up with a solution to the dilemma of defining Americana, albeit an unrealistic one.

“If we were sitting there picking up American music,” he says, “we could throw it in a certain bucket. There’d be an Americana bucket, and a non-Americana bucket, and that’d be kind of fun to do. But I’d have to have every band in front of me to say what bucket they’d go into.”

There are likely a lot of buckets Vile would toss his music into. b’lieve i’m goin down… is his sixth solo album, and like most of his other material, it’s filled with what has quickly become his trademark blend of humor and self-reflection.

“I’m an outlaw on the brink of self implosion, alone in a crowd on the corner going nowhere slow,” Vile sings on the aptly titled “I’m An Outlaw.” In the middle of “That’s Life, Tho (Almost Hate To Say)” he ponders, “Ain’t it oh – exciting, the way one can fake their way through life, but that’s neither here or there. In a way how could one ever prove you’re just putting them all on?” On the record’s first big single (and its opening track), “Pretty Pimpin,” Vile writes about not recognizing the man in the mirror, but laughing and saying, “Oh silly me, that’s just me.”

It isn’t shocking that Vile – who puts so much thought into even the simplest questions on the umpteenth press interview, and is influenced by everything from delta blues music to Lilith Fair acts – would spend so much time on his records obsessed with identity and answering the question of who a person is (and who he or she should be).

That’s not to say there’s a lack of confidence in his abilities or career path. Vile helped form The War On Drugs, he played on J Mascis’ solo album Several Shades Of Why, and his solo work has progressively received more and more attention. Vile’s put a higher emphasis on his live shows, and that was evident during a tight and powerful set at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July.

“I feel like every time I play music,” Vile says, “it gets a little better. Every time I put out a record, it gets a little better. I’m used to what I’m doing. Certain things get really big, big like they did in the ‘70s. Like The War On Drugs, they’re getting really big, and that’s crazy to see. I feel like a lot of bands, it’s like a slower growth. I sort of like that electricity, but another part of me does wonder, sh*t, it’s nothing compared to the way Neil Young blew up or something. I find myself talking about people like that, and it’s pretty funny because you step back and it’s at such a smaller scale [nowadays]. That’s not to say certain songs I write aren’t up to par with my favorite Neil Young songs. I’m not saying all my music [compare to Young’s] or anything like that, but if you go song by song, there’s a lot of reasons why I feel like I’m [close to him].

“It’s going good though,” he continues. I’m happy.”

The way other people would say that – “I’m happy” – you’d wonder if they were trying to convince you, or themselves. But Vile seems as self-aware as any artist can be. For every honest and introspective line like “Sometimes I talk too much, but I gotta get it out,” there’s a tongue in cheek:

“What’s the meaning of this song. And what’s this piece of wood? I don’t care, it sounds so pretty, its change is so sublime. What was the meaning of that last line? But I’m just kidding around over here.”

There was so much made about b’lieve i’m goin down… being a downbeat for Vile, and he’ll admit the lyrics are a bit sadder than on his previous albums. That said, these types of narratives come out of a bunch of interviews. When you’re asked about something, you give an answer. When you’re asked about it again by someone else as a followup to the first answer, you typically give a similar response. The third, and fourth, and 50th time, that answer becomes a theme, and now you’ve accidentally defined your own work for everyone else.

Just like it was hard for Vile to define Americana, characterizing his newest album is something he’s clearly put a thought into, but hasn’t settled on.

“People ask this sort of thing a lot,” Vile says. “I know I was feeling a certain kind of melancholy in my head for a lot of the record. It was rewarding, but there was an internal struggle or something, which I have in general. Everybody has it. This record, as rewarding as it is, and as many great times came from it, I remember some psychological internal struggling, and ultimately the music exorcises those demons. But that said, it’s also joyous. It’s not too dark or anything. If you had to give each [album] a measurement – just like if you had to throw somebody in a f*cking hat and call them Americana – this one’s a downer. If you had to pick one, it’s more down than up.”

It might be a downbeat, but b’lieve i’m goin down… shows Vile is still on his way up, whether he ever really gets as big as any of those acts from the ‘70s or not. As long as he’s happy – or as close to it as anyone can be – the rest will figure itself out. That’s life, tho.