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Keeping Up With Kurt Vile

The modern day folk hero and family man talks spirituality, Springsteen, and wanting to disappear.

by Brad Simm

Photo by Adam Wallacavage

He doesn’t belong to any particular denomination; he’s not a churchgoer, but pleased when told his music has a sincere spiritual quality to it. In response to the compliment, Kurt Vile reveals he is indeed a spiritual being, not afraid to acknowledge there’s a higher power. “Hey, if I’m scared of something, I’ll pray to something. I don’t even know what, but just in case because I’m terrified. But it’s usually just if I can’t get ahold of my family or something, you know, for a minute.”

In the wake of the atrocities of Trump, a lingering pandemic, the assault on the Ukraine, and the never-ending global upheaval, rather than veer off into the great void looking for guidance, Vile dials Jesus up directly on his latest release, Watch My Moves, and lends an ear to the exasperated Saviour in the song “Jesus on a Wire.” Together they question if there really is an answer to all this chaos.

“The world is so confusing now. And some people are doing it on purpose. It really is happening. It’s not fake, but it’s just disorienting and fatiguing. And it’s amplified these days… through phones. Everybody sees all the scary things going on. I grew up on lots of Jesus, but I’m not practicing any religion per se. And the whole idea (of Jesus on a Wire) is that even he can’t do anything about anything anymore.”

Watch My Moves, Vile’s first full length since 2018, was produced in his home studio in Northwest Philadelphia near Wissahickon Valley Park over the course of the pandemic. While the past couple of years have been filled with fear, frustration and isolation, the downtime for Vile brought a welcome relief to the demands and constant pressures of being an artist stayin’ alive.

“Aside from Trumpian things and things far from perfect, as far as the pandemic and being at home, that’s all positive for me. Cause I’m a family man, I got to be with my kids, like a normal dad to live a normal life and it was much needed. I was burnt. I wanted to disappear anyway.”

And disappear into a laid-back, reflective mode of songwriting is where Vile went on Watch My Moves. Filled with extended, sprawling tracks that are country-tinged, laced with the gentle twang of electric guitar and piano melodies that float and caress, Vile waltzes through stories about the little joys of life. Occasionally he turns up the amp, switches to a synthesizer, and steps up from a saunter to a romp, but he’s still riding on good vibrations throughout most of the record.

One notable exception to loving life is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Wages of Sin,” an outtake from the Born In The USA recordings. Vile has covered Springsteen before, turning “Downbound Train”’s slow burn, churning wall of chords into a haunting, restless ebb and flow of melancholic energy that’s far more runaway than it is down bound. Similarly, Vile pulls Springsteen’s tormented psyche in “Wages of Sin,” a song about a damaged relationship, into his own realm by embellishing its dreamy state of regret and sadness. A long-time favourite, Vile recorded a version of the song with his band the Violators in 2007 that was never completed but something Vile intended to finish. “Springsteen, he’s like a member of the family, sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t. But I got to reconnect with him. And that’s just such a great song, dark and hypnotic.”

While Springsteen’s inner tension is a departure for Vile, he charts out creative territory that has his own personal stamp on it. “My songs are all autobiographical in one way or another, of course this is not. But it is in that I connect with that song for so long and I can sing right along with Springsteen and sort of nail it and give it my own emotions at the same time. So, you know, I become him in that song, I consume it. Then I move on and it’s mine.”