Kurt Vile: Back to Moon Beach EP

Kurt Vile’s time is slippery. Mondays melt unnoticed into Saturdays. The sun rises, sets again, then it all flows bassackwards. His lengthy records give the impression of a series of sunlit days, half-remembered in a haze. But if listening to Vile’s music can make one acutely aware of the transience of all things, the man at the center of these songs does not always seem conscious of this truth. He lives from moment to moment—often the moment of his songs’ creation, which he likes to narrate out loud, describing his writing process and shouting out his influences. He’s deeply self-aware, and if his new album-length EP, Back to Moon Beach, at first seems like a continuation of this thematic and sonic mindset, he has a ready-made response to anyone hoping for a mid-career switcheroo: “These recycled riffs ain’t goin’ anywhere anytime soon,” he sings on the title track.

Back to Moon Beach consists largely of gold-hued guitar jams with simple chord progressions and generous runtimes. One of the first lyrics on opener “Another good year for the roses” is “These days I do whatever I want,” and Moon Beach at first seems like a commitment to this credo. The songs are filled with slacker hedges like “man” and “whatever.” Sometimes he won’t bother to write any words if a “woo” suffices. The title track suggests that “Moon Beach” is the mental landscape he escapes to while making music, and its distance from the daily grind seems aligned with idioms like “head in the clouds.”

And yet the Vile character seems less content, less satisfied, less serene on these songs than on any he’s written since 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo. Some kind of dissatisfaction has set in, and it’s not so easy to just play it away. “Cup runneth over with lifeblood/Then it sprung a leak,” he sings on “Touched something (caught a virus),” before complaining about a migraine. “Like a wounded bird trying to fly” centers on a simile apparently written by his daughter Awilda. “Always did I love that line/But never did I apply it to myself ’til just then,” he sings. On “Blues come for some,” the sumptuous layers of guitar fall away, and we hear Vile alone at a piano, confessing: “Blues came to me in my dreams/And it stayed.” The cause of Vile’s blues is often ambiguous, though “Tom Petty’s gone (but tell him i asked for him)” suggests one answer. Vile wonders aloud what he might have said to late musicians Tom Petty or David Berman had he known them, before concluding that he might not have found anything to say: Bob Dylan is still alive, after all, and if Vile met him in person, he’d “melt down like a nuclear reactor.”

Much of this material was recorded in 2019 at Panoramic House in Marin County, the affluent expanse north of San Francisco whose almost Celtic landscapes have long attracted newly moneyed rock stars and inspired some of their most beautiful music. These sessions would be Vile’s last with multi-instrumentalist Rob Laakso, a member of his Violators since 2013, who passed away earlier this year from a rare form of cancer. Though Laakso was not diagnosed until the songs had been written and the sessions wrapped up, “Tom Petty’s gone” becomes even more gutting in this context, especially given how fantastic his guitar work sounds throughout the record. Laakso’s arrival in the band coincided with a shift toward a more expansive and texturally rich approach, and rarely has Vile’s music sounded more transportive than in Moon Beach’s best moments: the ragged fuzz-wah at the end of “Another good year for the roses,” or the phased-out guitars on the title track that sound like waves lapping against the shore.

At 52 minutes in most versions, Moon Beach is longer than some of Vile’s albums; label Verve admits this is an “EP by no one’s definition” but his. (And maybe Sufjan’s.) The six-track single-LP edition runs a respectable 39 minutes and gains something by ending with “Tom Petty’s gone” and fading into poignant silence. Yet the bonus tracks are delightful. While “Must Be Santa” is best-known through Bob Dylan’s raucous drinking-song interpretation, Vile’s is touchingly domestic, featuring his two daughters on backing vocals and the constant, reassuring twinkle of a windchime. There’s also a cover of “Passenger Side,” a tragicomic early Wilco song told from the perspective of a drunk driver who’s had his license revoked and now throws back beers in the passenger seat. The only song that feels like an afterthought is a marginally shorter single edit of “Cool Water” from last year’s (watch my moves). It’s hard to tell if Moon Beach is meant as a continuation of Vile’s past work or the start of something new, but that uncertainty is also what makes it feel so exciting.

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Kurt Vile: Back to Moon Beach EP