Album Review: Kurt Vile – Bottle It In

Kurt Vile is nothing if not prolific. Alongside being a founding member of The War on Drugs and playing lead guitar on the band’s debut, his latest album Bottle It In will be his seventh full length release – eighth if you include the ultra charming and widely acclaimed Courtney Barnett collaboration of last year, Lotta Sea Lice. 

A record touted as the result of a two and half year sprawl across the United States of America, Bottle It In is a long and winding experience that lackadaisically unfurls in its progression. Just like any great road trip, it’s a laid back, dawdling experience, with what feels has no exact destination. While the purpose of said road trip and indeed this record may seem unfocused, complete with regular contradictions, detours and mishaps, it’s not the destination that is pertinent – it’s the experiences along the 1 hour 19 minute journey. While Vile’s two year expedition has not propelled him into any new and exciting territories, it certainly maintains his status as prolific cult hero of alt-Americana, while gradually inching him towards the territory of mainstream appeal.

Kurt Vile’s migratory existence during the genesis of this record is firmly reflected in the music. Alongside his traditionally playful and bluesman-like approach to his craft, mementos which represent the stops on his travels are dotted across Bottle It In. Inclusions of bluegrass instrumentals, blues-tinged Americana riffs, harps, synths and the occasional banjo pinpoint his multi-geographic influences throughout the recording process. Perhaps now expectedly of a Kurt Vile record, the songs produce a delightfully leisurely atmosphere throughout, none more so than in what is potentially the most quintessentially Kurt Vile track on the album in ’Loading Zones’. In true Vile style, the song meanders with mellow blues style vocals, aided by his signature guitar twangs and layered shimmers. Fans of his existential lyric writing need not worry as his penchant for exploring the mundanity of everyday life is wholly present on this track, in which he explores the ability to complete his chores while being able to escape reprimand for parking in restricted loading zones.

‘Bassackwards’ is another stand out track that unassumingly sparks into life with textured backward guitar swells, before being masterfully layered with his signature finger picked blues guitar, creating certifiably floaty beginnings. The circular lyrical delivery cuts through the country-tinged wooze and each statement that is leisurely delivered (“I was on the beach”) is answered with further reflections on a wistful more desirable situation (“but I was thinking about the bay”), giving us a progressively deeper insight into the psyche of a man who has until now been a relatively closed book. It’s a song which feels like it best represents the album as a whole. It’s a near-ten minute epic that floats along propelled by an unperturbed haze, while giving us an increasingly deeper insight into the consciousness of a man who is battling self doubt in an progressively circular journey of self discovery.

While traditionally Vile has always been more comfortable shrouded in existential lyricism, it feels on this record that the veil has been somewhat lifted from his writing, even just for a second, with some of his most personal lyrics to date. ‘Mutinies’, alongside a cameo from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, is the most clear departure away from poetic prose and concealed meaning and sees him at his most vulnerable, tackling the fear, anxiety and dread of modern existence. He questions the omnipresence and impact of digital technology referring to the “small computer in my hand exploding”, while pining for times gone by and a simpler existence stating “I think things were way easier with a regular telephone”. Probably a familiar feeling to most of us, Kurt Vile is full of contradictions and self doubt describing this in the track as “mutinies in my head” and stating that “I take pills and pills try make ‘em go away”. In an era where discussions around mental health are becoming increasingly important, it feels an apt and a much needed time for Kurt Vile to address these issues head on.

Upon reaching the conclusion of Bottle It In and the final destination of the journey, what can’t be denied is that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen. Texturally, the album is magnificent, showcasing some expert production and some of Vile’s best work. His incorporation of a wide range of influences, his expertly witty and cutting guitar playing, his frank discussion of his fear and self doubt on this record is apt and hugely relevant, and also somewhat a refreshing departure from his usual coded expressions. However, in places the album feels somewhat overly similar to past work, and despite being recorded across a vast expanse of land sampling different musical cultures and influences, new ground is not overly trodden here. Like any long journey, it’s one I have throughly enjoyed, but one I won’t want to be making again in a hurry. Perhaps further along the road that will change.