Kurt Vile’s ‘(Watch My Moves)’ Blurs the Line Between Creation and Content

In “Goin On a Plane Today,” the opening number of his ninth album, “(Watch My Moves),” Kurt Vile sings,”My mind gone foggy, my memory’s unclear… Watch me shrinking back into a little kid / Just as I’m just getting old.” There is indeed a fogginess that permeates the album, with the high fidelity possibilities of Vile’s current studio setup seeping into the same general aesthetic that characterized his early lo-fi recordings. It makes for a blurring of worlds, in which songs can sound familiar upon first listen, yet mysteriously removed. There’s the constant sense of an artist who has paid his dues and carved out a distinctive niche for himself, strumming along comfortably satisfied. The opening song was written around the time VIle opened for Neil Young in 2008, and finds Vile reflecting, “Listening to ‘Heart of Gold’ / Gonna open up for Neil Young / Man, life can sure be fun.” Young’s spirit seems to make its way into the music, and there’s a winsome, childlike quality to the tune, with the nostalgic sounds of muted horns playing up the theme of childhood regression, or perhaps eternal youth, as an artist who has come full circle, by going on to performing with his idols, muses from a sonic space he has made his own. Having always placed a high priority on creative independence, Vile has finally achieved complete freedom with his home studio, which he calls Overnight KV (OKV), built just before the pandemic struck. On his latest record, the first with jazz label Verve, he blurs the lines between the creative process and final product, creating a uniquely immersive experience and an especially unfettered realization of an aesthetic crafted over years 

Vile has spoken of the new record’s “lived-in feel,” which especially comes out on ““Flyin’ (Like a Fast Train,” which trudges along with plenty of Vile’s usual guitar bends and his drawl and twang, eventually descending into humming abandon. Interestingly, this tune was originally written for Kesha, and would have surely taken on a very different form in an alternate timeline. As it stands, it seems Vile has taken extra effort to make the song truly his own. Some of the most engaging musical bits of his latest work come out like folk channeled through dream pop. “Palace of OKV in Reverse” is a case in point, with a haze of muddled, vaguely aquatic guitar sounds, and some delightfully camp, aged horn sounds. The album is largely built from decidedly groove-based compositions, in which you can hear the spontaneity with which songs came together, making for successfully realized conceptions that blur the line between process and product. On single “Like Exploding Stones,” Vile offers something of a running commentary, singing, “Guitar’s feeding back now / Feedback massaging my cranium,” as the song gives way to surges of sputtering. Colorful textures keep the music engaging, as free washes of noise and liberal solo passages fill the space around Vile’s laidback, easy contemplation. The unassuming singing and guitar playing are uncannily in sync and exude with an ease that validates Vile’s claim, “Been gone, but now I’m way gone,” as if he has readily yielded to his muse and left the music to guide him.

“Hey Like a Child” is a standout track, a charming love song that finds Vile still  seemingly running on automatic, having now stumbled into a zone with a palpable pop pull. His jangly guitar figures, scattered in a shoegaze-ey display, are at once punchy and effortlessly mellow, while his vocals are perfect for conveying snippets of unaffected folk wisdom or, in this case, something more akin to romantic poetry. “Jesus On a Wire,” features droll lyrics about “Jesus on the phone / Talking ’bout a nervous breakdown / Even he don’t know / How to bail us out of this one,” with invaluable vocal contributions from Cate Le Bon, offering faint harmonies that create a sense of serenity just out of reach, over a free jam that evokes the spirit of TIm Buckley.  A major outlier comes in “Fo Sho,” an upbeat jam propelled by juicy synths, that finds Vile turning up the guitars and fleshing out up-front vocals that, while hardly energetic, stand out from the withdrawn voicings that prevail on the album. Such mixups offer refreshing variety on an album that features Vile admittedly rather complacent, as he sings here, “Even if I’m wrong / Gonna sing-a-my song.” “Cool Water” is something of a calm after the storm, a number as light as its title suggests, on which Vile alludes to Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, and the Glaser Brothers. Vile joins forces with indie outfit Chastity Belt on “Chazzy Don’t Mind.” Like much of the album, the song drags on with a comfortable sluggishness. The drums take great liberties in speeding and slowing the tempo on whims, a refreshing approach in an era when drums tend to be mechanized to unnatural perfection. Vile’s conversational delivery and Lou Reed-esque mannerisms especially stand out here, and he sings, “I don’t mind” like he means it, trailing off into a blissful falsetto, while violins add a rosy hue to the rustic stylings. 

It’s rather daring how comfortable Vile is in simply letting his songs be. He throws in a couple of head-scratching instrumental interludes, like “(Shiny Things,)” in which the parenthetical title appears to suggest some meaning for synths that would approach some glossy texture if given a different production treatment. On “Say the Word,” Vile continues to write as if a radio receiver, of sorts, singing, “Words to this song come and go and, fly away.” Revisiting the themes of youth and age that appeared on the opener, he sings about, “every time I grow into a man” and “every time I grow into a boy,” and tellingly ends simply with “every time I grow into a –” The idea of being caught in an indefinite time warp is further brought to life on “Wages of Sin,” a cover of a little-known Springsteen track. Another musical standout, Vile’s rendition is the most compelling realization of the dragging sensation that comes across on so many of the album’s numbers. The track trudges along so wearily that when chord progressions take a dark turn, and crash cymbals sound, it all strikes with a creeping, climactic potency. Droning “ooh” baking vocals, tremolo guitars, and sloppily offbeat jolts create an environment in which Vile’s droning utterances of “on and on” and  “one by one” strike a nerve. “Kurt Runner,” another experimental interlude, is a musical continuation of the sentiment that can be rather tortuous, but effectively proposed, leaving you stuck on repeat in an awkward, lifeless loop. Luckily, the guitars of closer “Stuffed Leopard” find Vile reanimated, although there is still a decided sense of dragging one’s feet, as he sings of “Dream police in the marketplace / Turnin’ my eyes so blurry / Wake up, turn ’em back on and refocus / And I’m just in the same place again.”

And with that, Vile leaves us as he found us. Upon following the artist as he beckoned us with his ninth album’s title – “(Watch My Moves)” – we wind up essentially where we began. You shouldn’t feel unmoved. From “Like Exploding Stones” to “Jesus On a Wire,” from the spirited thrusts of “Fo Sho” to the endless wear and tear of “Wages of Sin,” Vile takes us on a journey. All the while, however, he strums on effortlessly, bends notes that make their way back, allowing us into his stream of consciousness as words come to him and songs materialize. The new musical directions, the fusion of shoegaze and folk aesthetics, come shrouded in a sound palette that arrives already familiar, the hallmark of an artist who has forged a style distinctive enough to allow for such travels. As the parenthetical title suggests, there’s much to enjoy within, as we watch Vile’s moves both in terms of his artistic evolution and in the musical workings that assemble themselves in real time.  

(Watch My Moves)” releases April 15 on Apple Music.