“Smoke Ring For My Halo”
Last week, I got the opportunity to see brain researcher Judy Willis speak about, predictably, the brain. Although my own brain wasn’t always at full alert during her presentation, my interest was piqued when she discussed our frontal lobe’s two major needs: pleasure and patterns. When discussing pleasure, she talked about how the brain thrives on dopamine. Whenever we experience something of pleasure (eating, sex, listening to music, completing a sudoku problem) dopamine is released into our system by the hypothalamus (the gland, not the Amazonian Queen).
Willis went on to talk about how cocaine induces an excessive release of dopamine. When a user tries to get the same high a day or so later, it doesn’t occur due to a lack of dopamine in the system (a result of the last foray with cocaine). This is why a junky is likely to up their dosage in order to reach the same high felt prior.
As I listened to her, I couldn’t help but think of my own addiction to music . As a kid in secluded, small town Iowa, one Soundgarden album could appease me for months, but these days I find myself getting two to three albums per week, yearning to revisit that euphoria felt while listening to a truly awe-inspiring album. As a music junky, 2010 was an 8-ball of satisfying albums, providing my brain with an endless dopamine flume ride.
But this year has been different. Just three months in and I’ve already been going through withdrawals. Don’t get me wrong – there have been some great albums within this time period (Destroyer “Kaputt”, PJ Harvey “Let England Shake”, Gang of Four “Content”) but even these albums, with all their admirable qualities, plop into my ears like a drop into an empty well. Plop. With my ears, I discern all the strong attributes of albums such as those just mentioned, but with my heart? Nothing. It seems my brain is going through its own dopamine drought, and despite the constant flow of new music through my ears, it’s been a long time since I felt that exhilaration.
This empty feeling has led me to a heightened level of concern. Had I overdone my obsession with new music? If you live on a diet of steak and lobster, do you enjoy it as much? Can you actually get sick of greatness? Would I ever feel the way I did last year when I first heard “King of the Beach”, “The Suburbs”, and “Teen Dream”? Would I ever feel that excitement again? That rapture?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes , yes, yes! Kurt Vile’s “Smoke Ring for My Halo”, oh you blessed knight in shining armor! Oh you understated assembly of stoner-folk dirges that break the binds of time and space! How I adore you and your enchanting melodies! There is a glorious savior of dopamine after all, and his name is Kurt Vile.
Not only have I fallen head over heals for Vile’s collection of brilliant folk songs, but I can’t remember the last time I fell this hard for an album. In the three weeks I’ve owned it, I’ve listened to it at least 20 times, something I never do anymore with my constant need for the next big thing. But there is something else going on with “Smoke Ring for My Halo” and trying to pinpoint it can be much more difficult than you would think.
On the surface, Vile’s album doesn’t seem like much more than a collection of slow strum-bling and mumblings of a sarcastic, disaffected youth. But this isn’t just some jangly, patch-work of songs; a closer analysis and you’ll quickly see that every song is intricately constructed within a lush, cave-like environ that only magnifies the creaks and buzzing of Vile’s acoustic. While he seems all alone with only the ghosts of his band the Violators hiding in the background, the production hugs his vocals and creates an ambience that is one part groove, and one part melancholy. Much like Neil Young’s “On the Beach” or Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”, each song on “Smoke Ring For My Halo” is distinctly different, yet they all feel to be a part of the same world. It never feels like Vile is giving much effort, but don’t be fooled. This man is wearing his heart on each note captured on this album.
Try and tell me a genius song like “Jesus Fever” accidentally came together this perfectly:
Vile’s lyrics also portray this feeling of indifference, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that there is a lot of pain being masked behind his nonchalance. For example, on “Ghost Town” he mumbles: “Raindrops might fall on my head sometimes, but I don’t pay ’em any mind. Then again, I guess it ain’t always that way.” Instead of a message facing adversity with “I will survive”, Vile’s lyrics convey a feeling of simply giving up and continuing his journey of “Sleep walking through a ghost town.” These white flag mantras are throughout the album, whether it be giving up on religion, society, love, or life.
With such a penchant for giving up, I wish Vile could get me to quit listening to his album, at least for a day or so, before I reach the level of overkill. This is one of those albums I want to be able to still enjoy years from now…then again, I don’t think it will hurt to take just one more hit of Vile-infused-dopamine tonight before bed.
If “Ghost Town” doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will:
(Side Note: I’m not alone in my inability to quit listening to Vile. In an interview a few years ago, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon answered the question of what her guilty pleasure was by saying, “Listening to Kurt Vile’s latest CD,Childish Prodigy. Guilty because I listen to it too much…” It looks like someone needs to buy “Childish Prodigy”.)