Kurt Vile is truly one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years. I first uncovered the lo-fi rocker when I mined 2013 year-end lists and found his pretty great Wakin On a Pretty Daze — which cracked the top 5 of my own year-end list. Two and a half years later, Vile is back with an album that’s more refined, featuring music that’s been distilled into something more digestible than its predecessor, for better or worse. Whereas Wakin On a Pretty Daze had a wide-open feel thanks in part to the pair of ten-minute epics that bookend that album, b’lieve i’m goin down… is a decidedly more “indoorsy” record: That big-sky sound of the mountain west is still here (though for the record, Vile is from Philly), it’s just been moved inside a nearby whiskey bar, with Vile favoring a more muted approach that’s more finely textured this time around. Or, to extend the metaphor, that whiskey bar is empty — there’s never any sense that the roof is going to blow off.
The closest Vile comes to rocking out is on the album’s opening trio of songs, which are (relatively) concise and tightly focused. Yet even the most insistent track, the altogether excellent “I’m an Outlaw,” is centered on the banjo and isn’t your typical rock song, even if it is one of my favorite songs of the year. Overall, b’lieve i’m goin down… has a very wistful tone, as if capturing the alternative singer/songwriter during a particularly transient period. The album never feels as if it’s in a hurry, settling into a blend of mostly acoustic guitar and piano that consistently mines the subconscious and manages to stay there for quite a while. (Some songs, like the standout “Lost my Head there,” contain such pleasant codas that it’s easy to not notice how long they last.) Overall, b’lieve i’m goin down is an album that finds an already skilled craftsman improving on his craft markedly in some areas, especially when it comes to using the studio as an instrument and reining in the more jammy nature of his previous work. I happened to like those longer tracks, but I find myself enjoying what Vile has to offer here just about as much. Here’s hoping he finds a way to continue to grow on his next album, as well.