Kurt Vile's name conjures up images of defiantly snotty middle-aged punks covering Sex Pistols songs in a grotty basement bar. It's tempting to suggest that this unsavoury image couldn't be further removed from the reality: Vile is, after all, a hotly tipped, Matador-signed starlet with a penchant for dreamy, drifting indie. There are, however, distant echoes of the Pistols in Vile's lyrics, self-aggrandising contrarian screeds which he delivers in a snarly sneering, disdainful voice. For all that Smoke Ring For My Halo showcases his abilities as a guitarist, it's your reaction to those lyrics which will determine the extent to which you enjoy the album.
The Vile lyric which critics have been fussing and cooing over the most is follows: 'Right now you probably think I'm a puppet to the man/well I'll tell you right now you best believe that I am'. Clever? Well, no. It's just an hollow bit of sarcasm delivered as if it were a cutting put-down, and the sneering manner in which the lines are delivered doesn't change that. Vile spends much of the rest of the album trying to position himself as a rock and roll outsider, taking empty, sardonic side-swipes at everything and nothing (typical lyric: 'Society is my friend/It makes me laugh/down in the cold bloodbath'). It's a singularly unappealing tactic, a cavalcade of irritating posturing which detracts from the album's strengths.
When he's not engaging in this nonsense, Vile finds time to develop some affecting, pretty music. He's a talented guitarist, gifted with technical ability but clever enough never to be too ostentatious or overbearing; his approach to the guitar is, in other words, the precise of opposite of his approach to vocals and lyrics. Witness, especially, his beautiful finger-picking on the gently melodic 'Peeping Tomboy', which coasts along in a hazy, beautifully shimmering manner. It's not the only gorgeous moment on Smoke Ring For My Halo, either: the likes of 'Baby's Arms', which features Vile's most engaging vocal, and 'On Tour' rest on similarly pretty guitar work.
Anyone who is able to screen out Vile's self-consciously attitude-heavy vocals will find much to enjoy here. The music is languid but precise, clever but never show-offish. Personally, though, I'm hoping for an instrumental album.