Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile has the kind of murky recording history that could turn off a casual observer. Over the past two years, Vile has released three solo albums, a steady stream of 7-inch singles, and an EP with his band the Violators, and he’s punching the clock as the lead guitarist for the War on Drugs. To make matters more daunting, his sound and mood shift drastically from release to release (and sometimes from song to song), making him a veritable musical Zelig: There’s Kurt Vile the hazy, bedroom pop auteur; Kurt Vile donning a Tom Petty disguise; Kurt Vile trying out his avant-garde soundscape hat.
So this is not music for the casual observer: It’s intense music made by an intense individual. Childish Prodigy is full of Vile’s scattershot personalities, but front and center is a tough, full-bodied rock sound that he’s only hinted at in his past work. The Violators are Vile’s creative vehicle here, and he revels in their potent energy. Kicking off with “Hunchback,” Vile lives up to his too-good-to-be-true surname and sneers amidst a wall of dark swamp rock. The stuttering, reverb-drenched beat on “Freak Train” taps into the album’s forward momentum, allowing Vile to dance all around the rhythm with screamed profanities and wild-eyed crooning, while stand-out single “Overnite Religion” focuses this propulsion into a driving atmospheric folk tune.
Yet, like on past releases, Vile seems to find his best inspiration in the album’s valleys rather than its peaks. While the louder tracks use rhythmic repitition as a means to hammer home his messy squall, “Blackberry Song” finds Vile employing a looped guitar riff as a foundation to build a gently psychedelic ballad on, all the while maintaining the album’s sense of urgency. He’s equally comfortable sketching out simple folk pop (“He’s Alright”) or loose, blues-heavy dirges (“Inside Lookin’ Out”), both styles serving as testaments to his unique ear for mood.
Too often, his creativity gets lost in the guitar clatter, as a whole slew of cuts feel like tossed-off jams from a busy weekend. It’s only when he scrapes back the layers do we really see what Vile has to offer. With a recording output as prolific as his, it’s only natural that some of the gems sit beside the clunkers. Vile is only consistent in his inconsistency, but that’s what makes me excited: I can’t wait to hear what he comes up with next.