Kurt Vile has always carried around an air of both mystery and aloofness. These aspects are classic attractors: both tend to draw droves of (mostly female) fans like a moth to the flame. His music is classic in the sense that it draws from rock legends like Neil Young and even more alterna-legends like Thurston Moore. Listening to Smoke Ring for My Halo can be almost Zen-like for some, a snoozer for others. The reason it might be a slow burn is because of the tone of the record: Vile is an introspective vocalist, who revels in the tone of misery. This is not a joyous sounding record, but it is beautiful in its self-involvement. The song that hits this point the most is “On Tour,” and it is about exactly that: life on tour, as a metaphor for life in general. As with the stereotype of most musicians, you get the sense as a listener that Vile just doesn’t care what you think. He’s an artist first, performer second.
There is also a sense of deep sarcasm drifting among the songs, especially on “Society is My Friend.” It is hard to believe that someone whose hair falls longer than most women I know would believe that society is his friend. “Peeping Tomboy” sounds creepily quiet, just like you would expect a Kurt Vile as a peeping Tom to be.
The two main elements of Vile’s music are undeniable in their power: the vocals and the strength of his guitar playing. His lo-fi recording style definitely highlights both of these elements, but in a quiet, low-maintenance fashion. Being that his previous recordings were him and him alone, Smoke Ring sounds more fleshed out and carefully crafted, even more mature. Vile appears ready, even if reluctantly, to enter a more mainstream music scene. There is a feeling that, while Vile maintains some of his more childlike Childish Prodigy ways, he has opened up to the world around him. His realizations that he is a “Puppet to the Man” seem an ironic nod to the music industry, but it is clear that he isn’t done making his musical statement, one that will be his and his alone.