About 100 kids line a tiny alley in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, clapping and waving on cue. In the middle of them all, a rail-thin hesher with shoulder-length hair. He’s wearing a crown, and is pushed down the street on a makeshift throne on wheels. He has security. And flag bearers. A man who looks very much like him leads the procession a few feet ahead, playing a guitar. Just your average, back-alley parade on a sunny Saturday.
Every once in a while, drawn in by the commotion, one of the working-class Irish locals peeks a curious head around the corner, furrows a brow, and walks away. What they know is that the neighborhood’s changed quite a bit over the years, the youth ever encroaching on their sacred turf, sullying the landscape. What they don’t know is that the kid in the crown actually is a king of sorts. He is Kurt Vile: constant hitmaker, childish prodigy, master of slacker blues, ruler of fuzzed-out dreamscapes.
The alley is one of several locations of the day’s video shoot for “KV Crimes,” the second song on Vile’s dazzling new album Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, out this week on Matador. Directed by The Best Show on WFMU host Tom Scharpling, the video is a family affair. Pushing his throne are longtime friends of Vile’s, Richie Charles (his Richie Records/Testostertunes put out an early record of Vile’s) and Collin Keefe (food blogger at Grub Street Philadelphia). His wife, Suzanne, and two daughters are in the crowd. So is one of his nine siblings.
Over the phone, Vile says when Wakin’ drops, he’ll be taking some well-earned time off, sunning himself on the beach in Puerto Rico that’s become the family’s go-to vacation spot. “This will be our fifth time [there],” Vile says. “There are mountains, and the beach. The food’s included.” It’s easy to imagine Wakin’ written in a similarly idyllic spot: This is quintessential road-trippin’ music—arm out the window, not a care in the world. Its sun-soaked reverb washes out of the speakers in waves. But the truth is, most of the songs bouncing around Vile’s freeway mind come to him while he’s listening to music and walking the same narrow Philadelphia streets and tiny alleyways where the video was shot.
Vile started out over a decade ago, recording his own woozy, tape-looped droning in a bedroom and releasing it to an inner circle of friends and co-workers. First came Constant Hitmaker, released on the tiny Gulcher label in ’08, which got him played on WFMU and caught the ear of Matador, which signed Vile in ’09. “He’s awfully good at using the tape recorder as an instrument,” says Matador label boss Gerard Cosloy. “Not in a This Heat way or Bob Pollard way, but in his own style. He’s a great songwriter, obviously, but there’s all sorts of weird textures to his recordings, to the point where repeated listening reveals things you didn’t hear the first or second time.”
In the Hitmaker days, Vile’s music could run from somber lo-fi acoustic numbers all the way to noise-drenched-but-melodic squall: “Needle and the Damage Done”–era Neil Young sung in the voice of a young Lou Reed, all laid down over Suicide’s first album.
During his three-album stint with Matador—Childish Prodigy, Smoke Ring for My Halo, and Wakin’—Vile has stripped away much of the druggy cacophony of his early experimentations, laying bare his gift for melody and songwriting. His music has always had the rare quality of taking on whatever emotion the listener brought to it. Turn on any song on Smoke Ring while feeling melancholy, and you will feel more melancholy. Bring joy to Childish, more joy comes back. Never more so than on Wakin’, Vile’s best to date.
Whether the album is an instant classic is debatable, but it’s certainly good enough to kick off that discussion, starting with the nine-and-a-half-minute “Wakin’ on a Pretty Day,” the album’s thesis statement and its not-quite title track. The album was recorded in several spots—upstate New York, New York City, Philly—over several months, and Vile says part of the ease you hear in the songwriting comes from repetition. The third big release feels a lot more comfortable than the first or second. He’s solidified the band. Things are locking into place. Touring doesn’t seem so daunting. The hilltop has been reached, and Vile is taking in the view.
“The last records, it was really stressful going in blind,” says Vile. “You’re getting pulled in so many directions, being told not to say no to certain offers because they may not get offered again. You feel kinda helpless.”
Vile has learned to pace himself. He knows that if the good stuff keeps pouring out of him, the opportunities to play the good stuff won’t evaporate. Wakin’ marks the end of his contract with Matador, but before it was even completed, the label offered him an unspecified extension. “We have a great relationship,” says Vile. “They take really good care of me, and I feel like a priority. Signing on for more albums made sense. It felt good.”
It›s not too much to say now that Vile might be incapable of writing a bad record. His three for Matador feel like we’re watching something important. Something big. Something worthy of a parade.