Like his former band the War on Drugs, Philadelphia singer-songwriter Kurt Vile takes basic classic-rock influences (Springsteen, Petty, etc.) and molds them into a distinct, original sound. Yet while War on Drugs frontman Adam Granduciel’s best songs are fueled by an intense longing for connection and meaning, Vile favors a far chiller approach, lingering on life’s small moments while shaking his head in disbelief at his good fortune. That reputation as the most Zen dude in rock can make Vile easy to take for granted, and on his new album “Bottle It In,” out Friday, he doesn’t exactly bust a gut trying to win over the unconverted. Take the time to meet him on his level, though, and he might just steal your heart anyway.
Fair warning: “Bottle It In” is a long, slow record. Songs tend to hang around for a few more minutes than strictly necessary (lengthy instrumental outros pushing three songs past nine minutes), while the peppy stop/start of “Yeah Bones” is the only genuinely uptempo moment. All that mellow gold could get monotonous, but Vile keeps things interesting within his jangly, country- and psych-inflected comfort zone; check out the trippy smears of backwards guitar on “Bassackwards” or harpist (and frequent KV collaborator) Mary Lattimore’s contributions to the title track. Though nothing here is as catchy as Vile’s 2015 hit “Pretty Pimpin,” the relative subtlety of his gently ingratiating melodies only enhances their replay value.
The melancholy aftertaste Vile’s blissed-out jams have always left is more pronounced on “Bottle It In.” He’s in a pretty good mood for the album’s first half, singing about finding free city parking, the joys of freeform radio, and loving his friends, all performed in the playfully gnomic style that has become his own private grammar. By the time the title track rolls around, however, Vile is in a wearier, more introspective headspace; most of the recording sessions came after prolonged tours, and “Mutinies” and “Cold Was the Wind” make no attempt to hide the bone-deep exhaustion of that lifestyle.
Even at his darkest points, Vile always circles back to his wife and daughters, the anchors that keep him from disappearing permanently into his own head. “Bottle It In” acknowledges that, even for someone who seems as effortlessly comfortable in his own skin as Vile, peace of mind and healthy relationships can only come through hard work. More than just another tapestry of gorgeous guitar-scapes to get lost in, it’s the fullest portrait yet of the human behind that Cheshire Cat grin.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley