Kurt Vile Retraces His Steps on 'Back to Moon Beach'

BY Myles TiessenPublished Nov 14, 2023

"These recycled riffs ain't going anywhere, anytime soon," stammers Kurt Vile on his latest EP's title track. Riffs, lyrics, melodies — call it what you will, but Vile has a long and storied career as a musical upcycler. Childish Prodigy's "Inside Looking Out" saw Vile redraft the Hunchback EP's fiery "Good Looking Out" for an equally ripping Springsteen-esque variant. His 2010 B-Side "Sad Ghost" is the spectral preview of Smoke Ring for My Halo's "Ghost Town," and even on 2022's (watch my moves), Vile teamed up with Cate Le Bon to reprise some lyrics from "Jesus Fever." 

Maybe the most obvious example is "Beach on the Moon (Recycled Lyrics)" from 2009's ultra lo-fi God Is Saying This to You… Using an acoustic guitar fed through what sounds like a thousand reverb pedals, Vile collides a medley of "Freeway" and "Hunchback." Although the song features no novel fragments, Vile uses his incomparable talent for song structure and guitar tones to give it its own sonic identity. 

While his songs often feel like they've effortlessly flowed from his hazy brain, there are years — or, in the case of Back to Moon Beach, decades — where ideas and themes echo in his mind and pour out the sharp end of his Fender Jaguar. This latest one shows that Vile's cavalier approach to songwriting is often about intentionally losing sight of unique novelty and creating songs that move him, even if they've moved him before. 

That songwriting practice has led to a wealth of material, and oh boy, is Back to Moon Beach long. Featuring nine songs recorded sporadically over the past four years and coming in at just under an hour, Back to Moon Beach has insanely been dubbed an EP — starting mining this deep well of material though, and these diamonds glow brighter than you could have ever imagined. 

Back to Moon Beach opens with its most purposeful track. "Another good year for the roses" sees Vile, in typical fashion, walking through vaporous streams of thought. Lackadaisical — "One day I'll write me a letter and get my shit together" — to casually philosophical — "These days / Man, these days I do whatever I want / Tone out the rest 'til something awakes me from a rest / Tone out the rest 'til something arresting awaits me" — "Another good year for the roses" is a codeine-filled stroll with Vile through his distinct jungle psychedelia. From the staccato piano and congruent phaser guitar synthesizer solos, all the way to what you could call a clandestine climax, it's clearly one of the more remarkable songs on the collection.

But not much can compare to the vortex of sound that is "Back to Moon Beach." Its molasses pace and rhythm are as hypnotic and gripping as a black hole (though a K-hole might be more on brand) — "Swimmin' in the Sky / I'm higher than God / Never coming down until the fall," wobbles Vile through maybe the most delirious state we've ever heard him.

Despite feeling like a cut of odds and ends at some points, the thread of fatherhood meanders through Back to Moon Beach. On "Like a wounded bird trying to fly," Vile reflects on the impacts of absentee fathers on their children and the repercussions of his own career. Over a motoring drum machine and dizzying acoustic licks, Vile slurs, "My Daddy was a railroad man / Imagine all the miles of steel he rode along his whole life long / And now I just put that in a song." Vile hardly ever lets his mind wander beyond the campsite he shares with his family while he strums his red Fender Palomino; "Like a wounded bird trying to fly/ Well my daughter, she wrote that line / So copyright Awilda Vile," he sings with ecstatic pride. 

Other times, that idea of parentage translates into his musical father figures. His version of Wilco's "Passenger Side" is an ode to the Indie rockers that helped pave the way for him, and "Tom Petty's gone (but tell him I asked for him)" will most likely get buried in Vile's mountainous discography, but is laudable nonetheless. 

"Tom Petty's gone" starts innocently enough, with Vile on a goofy little adventure after realizing that since he never met Tom Petty, he ought to track down Bob Dylan before yet another hero bites the dust. "If he was ever in my sights / I'd probably melt down like a nuclear reactor," snickers Vile. Over the next eight minutes, the immediacy of mortality starts to weigh on him. During the most poignant part of the song, Vile shifts gears and gives a short but sombre lament to the late David Berman: "Really wish he coulda held on a little longer/ If you see him on another dimension, will you tell him we all really miss him?"

There's a constant reckoning with repetition and necessity on Back to Moon Beach; It's tremendously long, offering remixes of old material and recapitulating many typical Vile motifs. While slyly daring in extremely subtle ways, a large portion (of an almost hour-long EP, I might remind you!) feels somewhat superfluous to his more grounded catalogue. 

But to think about Vile's music in that way would be missing the point. In 2019's (bottle back) documentary, Vile said, "My rule is once you stop bobbing your head, you either cut that part [of the song] out or you find a way to fix it. I don't know if everyone's gonna get it, but I don't care. If you're gonna want to keep jamming, you're just gonna keep jamming." 

None of this needs to exist, but we'll always end up bobbing our heads anyway. And for that, Vile retains his status as Philly's constant hitmaker. 

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