5 Oct 2011

Dramatising Exclusion: Kurt Vile & James Blake

I was lucky enough to go to End of the Road festival last month, and lucky enough to see Kurt Vile and the Violators from the front of the crowd. And they were awesome. In fact I actually found it quite overwhelming, emotionally (and yes, it’s the 21st century, I’m going to make reference to emotions, deal with it).

I’m sure most music fans know the emotional chill which might seem randomly and inexplicably to wash down through your body with the first few bars of a live song. Often, it seems to have a lot to do with the realisation of a private treasure - a recording cherished in your bedroom or between earphones - in real time and space, by real people. It authenticates the provenance and value of that treasure, validating all its personal truths. The presence of an equally ecstatic fellow audience surely adds to this feeling. I'm sure this was part of it, but between me and Kurt, I think there was something else more specific in action at End of the Road, and I believe it extends right down into what I feel to be the unique qualities of his recent album.

For a while, I’ve been wanting to write something about Kurt Vile and Smoke Ring For My Halo, which is possibly currently still my album of the year. Like a lot of art, I think the album’s beauty comes from its essential portrayal of ideas and feelings that I recognise personally, but would be unable to encapsulate. In thinking about how it does this, I want to explore the ways in which the dynamics between voice and accompaniment - established not just in the notes themselves but through production and performance quality - can have a defining effect on the interpretations of a lyric and the semantics of a track. I would always suggest that such dynamics (and by ‘dynamics’ I don’t mean loud or soft, but the relationship between things), however intuitively written onto a recording, will always remain audible, and will actually govern the way in which the rest of the music is interpreted (rather than requiring a lot of analytical thought to detect). In this case though, I can also use these dynamics - and the specific lyrical sentiment which they dramatise - to explain pretty confidently why their End of the Road set left me something of an emotional wreck.

...I'm already gone...

On Smoke Ring For My Halo, Kurt Vile deals extensively with quite a particular sentiment - a feeling of life being over before it’s begun. It is a melancholia of unknowing, a boredom that is confusingly absolute and insurmountable, not quite ennui but a combination of deep indecision and a gentle, fatal acknowledgement of the impossibility of decision. And it is a resignation to these feelings. It is emerging into a young, free life, and finding no way to approach or replicate any of your prior expectations at what that young life might entail. Vile’s lyrics float in indecision and irresolution, gently changing or surrendering perspective with each proceeding line, but in no way expressing despair or franticness. The verses of ‘Peeping Tomboy’ serve as the best illustration of this:

‘I don’t wanna change but I don’t wanna stay the same’

‘I don’t wanna work but I don’t wanna sit around/All day frowning’

and most brilliantly

‘I don’t wanna give up but I kinda wanna lie down,
But not sleep just rest’

Also, on ‘In My Time’, with a greater sense of resignation:

‘In my time, I was young and crazy,
Sure I didn’t know nothing but now I’m lazy,
One day I won’t even know what was better,
Then again, I won’t know much of nothing anyway.
I know when I get older
I’m dying
But I got everything I need anyway
That’s fine now...’
This vulnerable yet shameless impotence is beautifully summed up in more specific terms in the line from ‘Runner Ups’:

‘Don’t know if you really came, but I feel dumb in asking’

And, in such a gentle, rocking song as closer ‘Ghost Town’:

‘Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes, but I don’t pay ‘em any mind/
But then I guess it ain’t always that way...’

The utter lack of commitment in this very last line of the record suggests a fatalistic acceptance of a lack of knowledge, forethought and purpose, which is heart-breaking coming from such a young perspective.

...most of the time...

Complimenting and expounding upon these lyrics is the relationship between Vile’s voice - which represents his character/presence within the songs - and the instrumental track which accompanies it (guitar or band). It is a relationship which dramatises exclusion.

To follow this kind of interpretation, one should imagine the substance of the recorded track as divided into two different forces (or entities or characters): the voice (human, familiar, articulable, identifiable, personified, specific) and everything else (which usually includes instruments, ambience, production, sometimes even backing vocals).

Each song on Smoke Ring For My Halo has a gorgeously ornate accompaniment part which is established quite fully before the voice enters. The instrumental music winds through the entire track like a thread, usually woven from delicate guitar lines, occasionally from a thicker band texture. It also usually comprises a melodic loop, or recurring chord sequence, or in the case of ‘Jesus Fever’ a kind of cycle of motives. The production on these instrumental threads is very smooth and clean, with each part wrapped tightly in, different timbres occasionally bubbling through, but the whole thing gliding serenely across each track. In most rock, pop and folk songs, structure is imposed on the instrumental parts through the format of the lyric and its narrative. Vile’s vocal phrases, I would argue, have very little control over the movement of the instruments. His melodies follow its contours, measuring themselves against it, but never penetrating within the instrumental structure or manipulating its course. Vile is left, quite literally, out of the loop.

Vile’s recorded vocals seem to testify perfectly to this interpretation. They are very close and quite clean, but they also seem weak and limp. There is an incredible weariness in his voice, which often sinks through syllables before falling away. The vocal phrases of ‘On Tour’ seem to be composed entirely of deep melodic sighs; this factor, along with the closing of each chorus with the impotent, non-committal clause: ‘most of the time...’, seems to drain all the freedom and agency from the seemingly rebellious lyrics. (The only real exception to this dynamic might be on the ironic ‘Puppet to the Man’, on which the production and vocal style is also very different.)

There isn’t a complete dislocation between voice and band though. The vocal lines don’t fight against the accompanying parts, as they do in the dynamics of some other bands’ music (think about voice/band dynamics in the Fall’s music - what has been called 'anti-lyric'). Vile the Voice tries hard to keep up - he presses himself against each closed, perfect stream. In reality, he accompanies them; the extended intros and frequent fade-outs suggest that the instrumental parts could exist perfectly well without him.


In their beautiful, cold completeness, the instrumental tracks on each song might represent lives being lived, seen from the outside, with the linear logic that such detachment suggests. (And all lives, even the most troubled and dysfunctional, seem to have more of a linear logic than our own.) These lives are so perfect in their chronology that they are sealed off to the vocalist - there are no cracks through which to enter, no step up by which he can begin to lead such a life. They show perhaps the life of the ‘best friend, long gone’, who has stepped along one of those paths which we are told lay open to every young person, and who is following it along its course, leaving Vile the Voice at home with pale ‘runner ups’, waiting patiently and just a little hopelessly for his life to start. While to others it might seem that his vocals have some connection to each instrumental thread, that he is riding them or even spinning them out, he knows that he is only brushing against them, and that none of these threads is his, and that he can’t remember ever having the opportunity to get one or find one or make one.

We do know, however, that it is Vile who created these beautiful, enclosed tracks, that they are part of his songs, and that in this way we could see them as fantasies - imagined lives created only to be instantly lost. They are ideals that were never accessible, and yet he sticks close to them, defining himself alongside them, and resigning himself to an identity outside of them. But it is not an angst-ridden Romantic gesture - the music and the accompanying vocals are serene and usually in a major key, they are so placid and uncaring that they refuse to allow him passion or protest. And so he is resigned to his outsiderness, even forcing quiet optimism when, were the slight nothingness of his lyrics and the unimpeachable, immaterial guitar lines to be removed, all we would hear would be absence.

...then again...

As desperate as all this might seem, I don’t believe that I choked up at his gig because I was swept away with melancholic wallowing in my own identification with this interpretation (although that probably has had something to do with my obsession with the album all year). I believe it was actually the opposite, that in a live context, Vile the Voice is also clearly Vile the Guitar, and Vile the Frontman. He not only has control over the music, but the impenetrable tracks from the recordings are broken up and distributed amongst a band of distinct musicians, which Vile leads. The live arrangements open each song up, and allow his vocals to move within them.

In this transformation, only detectable when the dynamics of the recording are compared with the live dynamics, Vile can be heard to reclaim his own life. In a way, he debases the delicate fantasies of the tracks and makes them more raw and more real, but he also presents them to us as his own creations, his own impossible visions for living. In this way, Vile’s live performance is a rebellion against the terrible melancholia which still lingers in his lyrics and is remembered from his recordings. He does not provide solutions, he doesn’t make any great positive statements, but he does hold his sadnesses up, with energy, in an act of defiance. And if one were so inclined to identify with such early-life directionless impotence, this defiance might perhaps make one inclined to get a bit emotional.
                                                                                                            (vile = live = evil???)

...all that I know...

I was also lucky enough to go to Bestival last month, and lucky enough to see James Blake, who I think can be interestingly contrasted with Vile as dramatising exclusion not by being lost outside of things, but by being lost within them. Obviously there is so much to say about James Blake’s music, this is just one small aspect of what makes him fascinating, and it can be heard most clearly on ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, with its lyrics that very closely reflect Vile’s in youthful unknowing, powerlessness and quiet resignation:

‘I don't know about my dreams,
I don’t know about my dreaming anymore,
All that I know is I'm falling,
Might as well fall in.’

For all the mildness of each ‘might as well...’, the song is still a scream. Blake’s vocals remain measured, repeated almost as a mantra of scant self-knowledge, but the ‘scream’ manifests itself around him as a negative. Through the course of the song, Blake’s repeated lyrical and melodic formula (which is actually borrowed from a song by his father James Litherland (James Blake Sr.?)) becomes lost within the musical world, as the surrounding electronic elements rise like tide water. Blake’s presence recedes from view, as if seen through a camera tracking backwards through fog or upwards through a well (this pretty much corresponds to the visualisation in the video). His voice is eventually engulfed by the surrounding electronics; it doesn’t obscure him aggressively, or clash against him violently, it merely subsumes his vocals within impersonal strata of sound which hide the harmonic changes and metrical phrasing of his complaint beneath their disconnected flatness. The space that he leaves as he is swallowed up is the ghost of a scream. He is alone at the centre of things, but just as excluded as Vile in his own way.

Unlike Vile though, seeing Blake perform the song live actually enhanced these dynamics. On the recordings there are complications and ambiguities, since throughout the album the relationship between Blake’s human voice and the surrounding electronic textures is very fluid. Blake may sometimes seem to be the only living presence inhabiting a great cave of negative sound, but always his shadow or reflection will bleed into the surroundings and bring the walls to life. However, in a live context, you can see and hear him repeating each verse as, from elsewhere onstage, he is obscured in noise far more intense than on the record.

(Incidentally, ‘the Wilhelm scream’ is a sound effect, a cliché and an in-joke. It is a borrowed sound, impersonal and indiscrete in its use, but regularly recontextualised in movies to accompany a minor death. It sits somewhere between tragedy and farce, depersonalised yet specific. Blake borrows his music and his sadness from his father. The mind boggles...)