Kurt Vile’s initial instrument wasn’t the guitar. The would-be singer-songwriter first learned his trademark subtlety — and deft finger work — not while mastering chords, but while hoisting pallets with a fork lift, which sounded a droning, rhythmic backup alarm every time he shifted into reverse. It’s no surprise that his former gig, at a Boston air freight company, helped inform the tightly woven songs that have become synonymous with his name.
“It’s a real tight squeeze, like an art. You come in with the forks and just go one inch this way.... It’s super subtle, a little turn here, another little turn with the forks to get it in... and things move really fast, you put all this freight in the smallest spot, stack it on top of something else. Sometimes I’d make a turn and not see, knock things over. It could be [crates of] beer, could be a TV.”
A similarly restrained approach underpins Vile’s latest release, Smoke Ring for My Halo, from the jangly recurring motif of “Jesus Fever,” to the windingly wispy notes that curl through the title track.
“It’s a subtle song, just three chords, but you notice more with repeated listening when at first it just seems relatively ordinary,” he says of the album’s title track, adding that its lyrics are equally layered. “It’s like a halo as if you’re an angel, but it’s a smoke ring from cigarettes, so it like cancels each other out. You know, it’s just like a very human thing... you try to be a good person but you’re just a human. I think it describes me, I think it describes most people.”
And Vile’s learned to harness such complexities — and even his own shortcomings.
“I think it’s like a skill you figure out over time... like experimentation when you’re younger, you just want to add a million things. But then it sounds insane, you’re listening but you don’t understand why, there’s too much going on. I’ve just been playing music so long that I learned less is more. I think it’s probably easier over time to know what needs to be what.”
But on Smoke Ring, sessions, that economic approach didn’t come naturally. In fact, studio wizardry hindered when it should have dazzled.
“In the beginning, especially where you just try to make things, you have so many tracks. Unlimited tracks. Especially when it goes on the computer, it just goes forever, you’re just trying so many takes and then you go ‘We’ve got too much here,’” he says of the flimsy gimmickry that almost ruined his latest disc. “Actually, the next time I go in to make a record I’m going to make it even more simple. I’m just going to have the least amount of tracks possible.”
Vile may have already whittled his songs down to that deepest essence, at least on a thematic level. On “Baby’s Arms,” his album’s opening tune, Vile sings lines about “never, ever be[ing] alone” with a level of conviction that has left listeners scrambling for double meanings, including one reviewer from Pitchfork who saw it as the singer trying to “convince himself” that loneliness could be banished.
“You can interpret it that way, but no, it’s like a dependency thing,” he says of the song’s most prominent lyrics. “It’s a heavy thing just to be able to say... ‘I’ll never be alone again,’ because of somebody else.”
In a way, Vile has always been squeezed in that special kind of company’s embrace. There was no room for solitary melancholy in the tiny Pennsylvanian house where he grew up with 10 younger siblings. It was as claustrophobic as the gaps between the freight yard pallets he’d one day navigate — leaving only room for the kind of minimalist movements he used to spark Smoke Ring.
“I wanted the kind of privacy that I couldn’t have until I moved out. I can’t give you a definitive answer on how that shaped me, but it definitely did. I think I wasn’t starved but wanting of attention,” he says. “I’m pretty sure the fact that we (my siblings) were all lumped together made us all pretty weird in a good way.”