It’s been years since I last saw Waking Life. Too many. I’m not a big re-watcher of movies, which doesn’t help, but Waking Life is a different animal. More exercise than entertainment, the assemblage of shaky vignettes provides psychological circuit training — a few existential squats here, some metaphysical crunches there — and while it’s yet to produce a crystal-clear, life-changing epiphany, it never fails to make the world seem a little bigger. Less restrictive. Like washing your mental blue jeans in reverse, if that makes any sense at all.
While it’s been ages since I set aside 99 minutes for the Waking Life workout, I’m finding that the 9-minute opener of Kurt Vile’s new album, Wakin On A Pretty Daze, offers a pretty effective proxy.
I’m sure you’ve encountered this phenomenon: It’s Saturday or Sunday, you wake up around the time you normally would for work, realize it’s the weekend and let your head fall back onto the pillow for some bonus sleep. Maybe you’re out for another hour. Maybe it’s just 15 minutes. Either way, next thing you know, you’re in a dream so vivid, elaborate and memorable that it feels like it lasts a lifetime. Like it’s 100% real and 100% ridiculous at the same time. Like you’re not quite part of the waking world, yet not quite as emotionally invested in the narrative your semi-conscious mind has concocted. Most importantly, you feel like you’re in control on some level, like you can steer events in the direction that suits you best. It’s a powerful feeling, right? You have options. You’re in charge. Nothing — not time, not space — can get in your way.
That heightened agency is at the philosophical core of Waking Life, and it echoes throughout “Wakin On A Pretty Day.” Vile floats through the first pair of sleepy verses with a sense of detached confidence, musing on choices he’s made and choices he’s yet to make, pushing away the real-world weight of his actions. And when the song finally manages to start dragging him down, with a darker minor-key section that extends from just before the 3-minute mark to just after the 4-minute mark, Vile does the most amazing, Waking Life-ish thing I (or, more to the point, he) could imagine — he stops, hits the reset button, and launches into the song’s brighter opening cycle as if he could have done so at any moment. It’s incredible. It’s just like being in a dream and saying to yourself “I don’t like where this is headed… I’m going back to the part where Princess Jasmine was feeding me cheeseburgers while Barack Obama and I play H-O-R-S-E with Jimi Hendrix and Julia Child on Air Force One.” (This is not an actual dream I’ve had, but I may reread that last sentence nightly until I have it.)
To me, that moment of disconnection represents pure freedom, and it does so in a way that produces the reverse-blue-jeans feeling that’s so hard to conjure without periodic reminders. I’m thankful I’ve found another such reminder, and I invite you to jump-start your own existential jaunt by listening below. When you’re done, scroll down to hear a second track from Wakin On A Pretty Daze, which you can preview in its entirety over at NPR.