Imagine a Mojave Desert dive bar, blacked out windows, ringed by creosote and tumbleweeds. Inside there sit lonely cowboys, empty sheriffs, outlaws, and nobodies. Think belt buckles, boots, six-shooters, and Marlboro smoke. Sitting atop of a bar stool, brown shoulder length hair, jean jacket, and an electric guitar in hand, is our hero Kurt Vile.
He begins with his best Tom Petty impression – the dark, delirious, and writhing “Pretty Pimpin.” His voice is quick and tight, verses are growled and barked. Like any good rock song, there is a small electric solo, reminding us that Vile still believes in a good ol’ fashion bruiser.
The album is desert rock, rural and spacey, but always moving and alive. The guitar, both acoustic and electric, are the stars of the show, but along comes the banjo for a song or two that gives the album the glow of earthy folk-country. The banjo is especially prominent in “I’m an Outlaw.” The shaky plucky brightness reflecting the empty boasts of a modern day wild man – or as Vile might say, “a regular badass.”
However, Vile never strays too far from his psych roots. The slow-burning and wicked hangover ballad of “Dust Bunnies” features a healthy heaping of echoing electric synths. The final song, “Wild Imagination,” is tapped along by an almost out of place drum machine. Kurt’s voice is never without a little dash of reverb following along, just enough to recreate some canyon and cavern emptiness, but never open sky spacey.
For a sonic moment, the desert heat and light evaporate from sight. A shadow has passed over the crowd; outlaws and cowboys alike look down into their drinks, at their hands. This is the gentle intermission of the album. Kurt appears at the piano, laying down a cautious little heartbeat. Vile is not a piano man, it never having appeared on any of his previous music. He has always been a rocker, upright, guitar in hand. Rockers don’t sit. But here he is knees bent, fingers poised into a singer-songwriter stance, never assumed before.
The underlying piano pattern, though his first attempt, is my favorite bit of the album. A string of warm apprehension, each note building up to something big, but never getting to the finish line. Imagine a boy gathering his courage and his strength to say hello to his crush, but each time shying away: the momentum is gone, victory is never claimed. It is sad and sweet and achingly persistent. That is the song “Life Like This,” mourning the deaths of dreams never reached, bemoaning the men and women who don’t commit to the act of living. The subject is tough to linger on, but luckily the piano sticks around for the rest of the album.
“Wild Imagination” is the closer. It is gentle and pretty, like the sun coming up over the mesa to reveal dew on the cactus spears. A shivering rattlesnake drum track guides along a lonesome but content guitar and Vile’s meditative lyrics. His poetic being interrupted by chants of “give it some time.” It’s comforting; an acoustic hug that pats you on the back and reminds you to try your best, that everything works out in the end.