Before we begin, let’s get one minor detail out of the way: Bob Dylan — Kind of an overrated bore, right? Now that’s been said, cassette culture hero and Philadelphia all-star, Kurt Vile, is once again working with elite indie label, Matador Records, to release what could be seen as his most cohesive album to date, Smoke Ring for My Halo.
In past releases, Vile has displayed an admirable versatility as a songwriter, switching it up between lo-fi folky acoustic numbers and crunchy, stoned out noise jams.
Disappointingly on this, his fourth LP, Vile reaches more toward the former minus the low-end production value but with lyrics sung in such a way that it can only laud him with the honor of being dubbed “the next Dylan.”
Late last year when the album’s first single, “In My Time,” was released, it was quite evident Vile would be putting the lo-fi schtick to rest while under Matador’s dime, but the track’s mellowly fleshed out style made up for the loss of noise.
A lead single can easily misrepresent the album as a whole, and that’s slightly the case here on Smoke Ring for My Halo.
There are instances where going for a chilled out sound can be advantageous (ex. Ducktails’ Arcade Dynamics,) but there are others where it sounds like the musician was too chronically stoned during the songwriting process to notice he may be putting his listeners to sleep.
“Baby’s Arms,” “On Tour,” “Peeping Tomboy,” and the sprawling six-minute-plus dozer, “Ghost Town,” are all evidence of that. While that may only be half the album, the other half doesn’t really get any more exciting other than delivering along the same wavelength as “In My Time” with “Jesus Fever” and “Society Is My Friend”, or the Tom Petty-esque “Puppet to the Man.”
There’s nothing close to a foot-stomping rocker like “Freeway” off of 2008’s Constant Hitmaker while a subdued melodic song such as “Runner Ups” can’t hold a candle to Vile’s most intricately laced and beautiful work (“Blackberry Song” off of 2009’s Childish Prodigy.)
The biggest shortfall here for Kurt Vile, though, has to be his vocal delivery. Where as it seemed before he was a new age kindred spirit of Bob Dylan, Vile comes off sounding like he wants to be Bob Dylan.
The audacity is respectable, but there are millions of Dylan wannabes out there in the music world as it is, so why not continue blazing your own trail?
Despite these missteps, you have to at least give Vile credit for his attempt to refurbish his sound, and the fact that his lyricist skills and ability to make an acoustic guitar sing for him are well in tact.
In the end, it sounds like Kurt Vile gave up a lot of his identity and took up someone else’s to justify this transition. Smoke Ring for My Halo is the best Bob Dylan album to be released in 2011, and that couldn’t be any more boring.