There are a lot of artists working the indie folk/rock beat—even some very good ones—who would kill to write as song as aching and beautiful as “Feel My Pain.” It’s the kind of muted, melancholy trip that could launch a career. For Kurt Vile, it’s basically a B-side, appearing on the collection of outtakes and cast-offs from his last recording session (which produced April’s Wakin’ On a Pretty Daze) on the new It’s a Big World Out There (and I am Scared) EP.
The material, which didn’t make the cut on Wakin’, serves a dual function. First, it exists as a stand-alone entity, seven tracks long, offering a brief and illuminating tour of Vile’s various modes, all of which could be placed in different genres, but all of which derive unmistakably from the same well of inspiration. Second, the EP is a supplemental piece that reminds the listener just how transcendent Wakin’ really was. Vile’s laid-back tone totally precludes the idea that he’s boasting in any way, but you can’t help but stand back in awe and think, “Wow. These are the songs that didn’t make the cut??”
(Side note: Whenever I think about Vile, I can’t get past the name, and the irony that if you had to describe his music, “curt” and “vile” would be the least appropriate words. “Kurt Vile” sounds like the name of a bad guy in a book by an author with a penchant for overwrought symbolism in his character names.)
To be fair, Vile’s not exactly Sufjan Stevens circa The Avalanche. Two of the tracks are short instrumental reprises, and two are variations on Wakin’ tracks, which leaves three originals. Of the variations, “Never Run Away” adds the least. It’s essentially the same track, except with string synths occluding the acoustic guitar from the original, and while it’s still listenable, it’s not an improvement. If the Wakin’ version sounded like a mellower, less depressed Elliott Smith, the update is slightly more poppy and cinematic. Which, of course, is what string synths do. The reprise tacked on its end, though, is a brief synth-and-gravel piece with a melody that makes you wish it was about five minutes longer.
“Snowflakes Extended,” on the other hand, feels like Wakin’s “Snowflakes Dancing” in its proper form, with a gorgeous denouement that adds a layer of depth and sadness to the original. The EP title comes from the extra verses, and the song’s longer version ends with an enigmatic ode to life on the road:
But when I’m way out there, I want to come home
And when I’m home, my head winds backward
When I am dreaming, it must be every day
Again I stray away
Again I stay
Part of what makes Vile so successful as a lyricist is his ability to twist a line away from the predictable (even if the predictable might be quite effective), and to resist the impulse to turn something complicated into something simple. In that verse, after the words “when I’m home,” you expect him to reverse the previous line and extol the virtues of the road. But “my head winds backward” is a better choice, communicating a similar idea but refusing to be bound up in a maxim, and therefore opening up new paths of meaning.
“The Ghost of Freddie Roach” (presumably in honor of the famous boxing trainer who is very much alive) has Vile’s electric guitar playing off the acoustic, with low, mumbled vocal drones giving away to falsetto by song’s end. “I know I wouldn’t change a thing,” he sings, in an expression of contentment that is so rare in music but so essential to Vile. “Wedding Budz” is a long instrumental with a bouncing rhythm that would have been right at home in the mellower corners of ‘70s rock until the spacey electronic buzz overtakes the guitar and makes the outro sound like something that wouldn’t be out of place on Kid A.
The gem of the new songs, though, is “Feel My Pain.” With a gypsy-folk sound reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, Vile paints a story of loss and a soft wish for redemption. If Denis Johnson’s seminal collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, had a soundtrack, this would be the first single. Like many of Vile’s songs, there’s a choice offered, and a glimpse of salvation in minor key, but no resolution. “There’s a place out there that we can go and clean up our act in, then come out squeaky clean so no one will know where we been,” he sings, but later, he recognizes that the alternative is just as likely:
Feel my pain and come inside or
Stay the course with a bulldozing force
Riding on a demon-possessed horse
There’s a place out there
People go and never come back
If you’d care to say your prayers
It’s a rare artist who can get sadness exactly right, and an even rarer one who can interlace it with humor and hope. Vile’s insight is the relaxed current on which It’s A Big World floats; an unexpected testament to one of the year’s best albums, and a compelling work of its own.