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“I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” Kurt Vile offers up on “One Trick Ponies” off his new album Bottle It In. For someone as assuredly self aware and introspective as Vile, the assessment feels less an aside or a wink and more a confession. He understands this tick as well as anyone, and he’s working on it. He’s working on all of it.
There’s always been something soothing, triggering, and zen-like about Vile’s guitar work, his language, his “hmm”s and “woo”s, and yes, that repetition. Songs push forward without abandon and it’s easy to lose track of time. Like endless time spent in your own mind, thoughts enter and escape Vile’s tracks, reappear like wraiths, cause chain reactions of doubt and regret, and painful, introspective examination of your own self.
That’s “just the way things come out,” Vile mentions on “Bassackwards,” a nine-minute, 47-second tour de force that will hold up as one of his sharpest and most poignant connections between guitar mastery and lyricism in his sweeping career.
The title track, “Bottle It In,” sees an echo effect that amplifies that soliloquy, as Vile says, “Don’t tell them that you love them for your own sake, cuz you never know when your heart’s gonna break, and that’s a chance you just can’t take.” It ends in a “hello, hello,” as if searching for a response that refutes those sentiments from someone offering up a counterargument — one that likely won’t come when he’s alone with his musings, with no one there to break those frequent and maddening cycles.
He finally decides at some point that it’s time to “bottle it in,” letting the listener know that he “went to bed.” Guitar god, yes, but still a dad.
While the album finds plenty of signature Vile humor, wordplay, and cynicism, there’s a state of facelessness to it all when Vile withdraws within himself. Written on the road over the past couple years, he asks “who needs armor when I have an exoskeleton? I slip and squirm through the cracks.” He can “creep around” like a shadow, blending into his surroundings.
The album clocks in at a weighty 79 minutes, although you can’t be sure if that’s even true. You’re never quite sure how long you’ve been listening to Kurt Vile. You’re never quite sure how long you’ve been lying awake. It could feel like hours in the darkness, trapped in that unending repetition of your inner psyche. Check the clock again, and find it’s only been a matter of minutes.
The entire project is reminiscent of Agapē Agape the last book by author William Gaddis — published posthumously and finished right before his death — which was written as the internal monologue of a dying man. There are no paragraph breaks, it weaves and winds and drops reference after reference in its short, sub-150 page format. Reflections are piled one on top of each other, building walls and suffocating, choking, stifling, leaving the reader struggling to breathe.
The novella is one big panic attack. It’s furious in its energy, exhaustive in its research, and still, somehow, it feels fittingly unfinished, the same way all our lives are unfinished. They just end. There’s always something left to be done, something left to be said.