Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Track Obsession: “Jesus Fever” by Kurt Vile

When I like a song, I really like it. Sometimes songs really lodge themselves into my head. I know there's no escaping the melody or interesting lyrics, and so I usually give up trying to shake the song and submerge myself. I listen to it day and night. I work out to it. I walk my dog to it. I do the dishes while it pipes out of my iPod. In short: I get obsessed. Isn’t there just something completely overpowering about a perfect song? You know what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the type of song that makes you want to run as fast as you can for no reason. It's not too long, not too short, a perfect hook, chorus, etc. You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not a musician, and Chris is really better suited to this kind of thing. I’m just a guy who sometimes freaks out over a song. And right now I’m freaking out over the song “Jesus Fever” off of Kurt Vile’s new album Smoke Ring For My Halo.

First let’s get a bit of background about Kurt Vile. The Philadelphia native came up in the cdr subculture. He was one of the founding members of the band The War on Drugs. He held down a day job while playing shows and releasing demos on homemade cdr’s. Here’s how Kurt Vile explained those early albums in a great interview with Bad Vibes:

"To me, early on at least, they were just homemade instant demos. Luckily I took a bunch of art classes in high school and knew how to make the package relatively pleasing to look at, and developed a kind of aesthetic with the artwork, till it became “my thing” and it got my name around a little bit. They were super cheap to manufacture, so I would sell them for 5 bucks at shows, or just give them away. It wasn’t till later that I kind of caught onto the subculture."

Said interview marked the beginning of his current career. He released albums on Woodsist and Mexican Summer records before signing on with Matador records as a solo artist. The interview was during the release of his first album on Matador, Childish Prodigy. His music hints at the classic rock hits of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and even some later-career Iggy Pop (and there are, of course, the ever-present comparisons to Tom Petty). Okay, enough history! Seriously, friends, you have to hear this song!

He’s offering the song as a free download on his website or you can watch this video of him playing it on top of a freezing roof:

I was hooked from the first few notes. It feels like it fades in from some unrecorded precursor. As the second song on the album “Jesus Fever” is still doing a lot of the legwork in the job of convincing people to like Smoke Ring as a whole. The album’s opener, “Baby’s Arms,” is soft and plunking, sweet to the point of saccharine, yet still melancholy with echoes of a deep sadness. It’s up to “Fever” to step up the tempo and show the second side of Vile’s musicality. The third song, “Puppet to the Man” shows his final side: snarling, self-referential, contrarian (“I bet by now you probably think I’m a puppet to the man./Well I’ll tell you right now, you best believe that I am!”). Nestled in between a song of love and yearning and a song of self-abasement is this meandering, up-tempo gem.

While of course there’s no set definition on the meaning of the lyrics (for as much as this sounds like a classic rock song, it’s not so unambiguous) I take it to be a rumination on dying and being “already gone.” The opening lines go something like* “I pack my suitcase with myself but I’m already gone./I cleanse myself with vitamin health but I’m already gone./ I saw it rising through the horizon and I saw it fall,/ but jesus fever’s fallin’ all over you believers and lovers.” What is this jesus fever? Is he equating the rapture of religion with the rapture of love? If so, I can get down with that.

He further illustrates the themes of death and dying with lines about a “broken skull” and about writing a biography about him when he’s gone. The final lines of the song bring a sense of finality to these running themes. “When I’m a ghost I’ll see no reason to run when I’m already gone./ If it wasn’t taped you could escape this song but I’m already gone.” Brilliant. Those are the last words he says and then, look, before the outro guitar solo’s even begun his voice is already gone.

Blurbs about this song from other websites keep the word “breezy.” True, it moves with a certain sense of levity, but all in all I find it rather devastating. The guitar work here is some of the best on the album, and it manages to be both haunting and lifting. The lyrics, especially upon close inspection, don’t just raise those big issues of death, spirituality, and ceasing to exist. They take the post-slacker, shit-gaze stance on it all. When he’s a ghost he’ll see no reason to run (to heaven?) and why should he? I mean, he’s already gone, right? This song leaves me feeling the way Kurt Vile describes himself feeling in the middle of the song, “I started shaking and my heart breaking and my belly crawls.” There’s something blindingly honest about those lines that keep me listening and re-listening to this song. Perhaps I really believe that if I leave the song on repeat it, and maybe I, will never really be “already gone.”

*Full Disclosure: These may not be the exact lyrics. It gets kind of hard to decipher, don't you think?