It’d be tough to explain exactly what was good about Kurt Vile tonight to anyone not already slightly enamoured with his work. There’s a lot to not like about it on face value; the vocals are never clearer than a mumble, the stage presence takes slacker to new levels of slack, and Vile’s band, The Violators, have a habit of coating his songs in a mixture of squall and reverb that cloaks the once-stirring melody of a song like ‘Jesus Fever’ to the point that it becomes hard to spot.
And you know what; such detractors would have a point. It is at times a struggle to love Kurt Vile tonight, despite the record most of these songs call home, Smoke Ring For My Halo, being one of my most beloved examples of simple singer-songwritership of recent years. They’re wonderfully tender, subtle and emotional pieces, and seeing them performed with the level of muscle and grungy noise that The Violators seem intent on supplying is like encountering an old friend who’s really not looking his best – a scenario that gives rise to as much pleasure as it does worry. For every hazy triumph like ‘Society Is My Friend’, there are a couple of numbers that really don’t hit the spots they should.
It’s understandable that Vile would want to amplify these songs’ more subtle qualities – this is after all a very big gig in front of a lot of people, exactly the kind of scenario in which nuance gets lost with ease. But what’s surprising is how brilliantly Vile succeeds in delivering just that when left on his own with an acoustic guitar. Here, songs like ‘Baby’s Arms’ and ‘Peeping Tomboy’ shine just as they were intended, Vile becomes twice as engaging, and those familiar with the material are spellbound by its fragile brilliance. Newcomers too must surely find this Vile easier to love.
Once his music’s undeniable charms have been pointed out by these solo renditions – which thankfully are long and plentiful – the return of the band to the stage becomes easier to find favour with; this is a crowd who just needed to be shown the songs’ beating hearts before they could become comfortable with any additional muscle. Hair constantly obscuring Vile’s face, the mumbling, the apparent nonchalance; all become easier to accept. Vile will doubtless continue to make fine records, but in a live setting, should follow the advice their success offers; when your songs are this good, less is more than enough.