Kurt Vile’s B’lieve I’m Goin Down receives a compact internal synopsis near the start of “Lost My Head There,” via this shaggy couplet: “I was feeling worse than the words come out/Fell on some keys, and this song walked outta me.” Delivered in Vile’s trademark muted snarl over a midtempo drumbeat layered with a simple piano melody, these two lines sum up the album’s defining duality, its ongoing tension between louche lethargy and obscured emotional catharsis. The 12 tracks here don’t seem to develop very much, embracing repetitive harmonic structures and a fuzzy, outwardly inarticulate lyrical style, but Vile’s mumbly delivery is deceptive. The music may largely be reducible to a series of fingerpicked guitar loops, but beneath this barebones approach lies a tangle of contradictions, involutions, and allegories, conveyed through goofy turns of phrase, rambling metaphorical tangents, and arcane non sequiturs.
All of this is camouflaged within what appears to be a low-key breeze of an album, another batch of mealy-mouthed stoner-rock from a musician melting further into his own tranquilized persona. On the surface, B’lieve I’m Goin Down often sounds like an artist running on fumes, using the cover of laidback bristliness to mask jumbled, soporific songs. Yet while the material is quieter and less dynamic than much of Vile’s previous work, that’s less a consequence of decreasing complexity than an artist compressing his concerns down into tighter packages. Beneath this impassive exterior lies the musings of a probing, uneasily arrayed mind, burying expressions of discontent ever deeper beneath sleepy, effortless-sounding songs—“an outlaw on the brink of self-implosion, going nowhere slow,” as he says on “I’m an Outlaw.”
The “slow” part of that equation, and the surface haze of slack simplicity obscuring Vile’s wit and attention to detail, can make the intricacy demonstrated here difficult to discern. Opener “Pretty Pimping” seems to veer close to self-parody, as Vile’s narrator confronts himself in the mirror, doubting his own image in a disjointed stream-of-consciousness spiel. This incoherence gradually takes on its own logic, developing into a metaphor for dislocation and detachment that pervades the rest of the album, developing an atmosphere of unease that complicates its seemingly stress-free songs. This ambiance progresses covertly, beneath a cloud of pop-culture references and slurred words, but whether rhapsodizing about the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on “That’s Life Tho,” riffing on Sam Cooke lyrics on “Dust Bunnies,” or just offering his own tortuously poetic take on the travails of substance abuse and general malaise, the overall feeling of caustically conveyed exhaustion is cumulative. Perhaps a bit too reticent for its own good, B’lieve I’m Goin Down still rewards close listening, steadily developing into an album that’s as multifaceted and profound as its mysterious creator.