I have a theory that a person’s favorite Built to Spill record is usually the first one they ever heard. For me it was Keep It Like a Secret, and while some may argue for Perfect From Now On or There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, part of loving Built to Spill comes from the memory of first hearing Doug Martsch’s earnest vocals rising above his ambitious guitar hero theatrics. For me, it was a revelation that in the indie rock world that so prides itself on dispensing with the ego-stroking performances of mainstream rock, here was a band who not only sounded like they belonged back in the ‘70s, but managed to merge their guitar heroics with emotionally potent songs.
Built to Spill have never been particularly prolific and with each passing album, it seems there is longer wait for the next one. It’s been five long years since the band’s last disc, Ancient Melodies of the Future, which received a critical and popular shrugging. Many missed the band’s usually sprawling compositions and felt whole affair was just a little too clean cut. Consciously or not, Martsch and company have returned to the grittier, rawer sound of yesteryear, unfortunately the songs themselves seem to have been lost along the way.
The disc kicks off with its longest track, “Goin’ Against Your Mind”, that at well over eight minutes, is quite a way to make an impression after a long absence. Certainly the signposts that the band has returned to their roots are here. In the place of longtime Built to Spill knobtwiddler Phil Ek, Jacob Hall and Steven Wray Lobdell worked with the band to obtain what they felt was a more authentic ‘60s sound and approach by using analog equipment. Thus, the squalling guitars on the lead track sound impressively large and warm, but the compositional strength of this, and other lengthy excursions throughout the disc are less than compelling.
What made Martsch’s mighty axe-wielding so effective and mesmerizing was listening to how his journeys outward from the core of his pop songs found their way back to the tracks’ pulsing center. While these weighty guitar travels often meandered, they were remarkably focused and surprisingly memorable, which most of You in Reverse disappointingly isn’t. Check out the song structure-thrashing, Middle Eastern-styled noodling of “Mess With Time” that abruptly stops and launches into a rocksteady rhythm halfway through. Or what about the call and response guitars on “Conventional Wisdom”, that while certainly pretty end up being largely inconsequential and can’t hide the been-there-done-that melody at the song’s heart. And there is a tremendous feeling of deju-vu throughout the album. It’s almost like listening to the band’s past albums from two rooms away.
And it’s questions that You in Reverse ultimately leaves with the listener. The record’s one-hour running time never ascends to the heights this band is more than capable of. Melodies are picked up and forgotten in favor of extensive jamming that never seems to find its way home. But perhaps most missed are the moments of heart-shaking transcendence that has previously made Built to Spill essential listening. In their best work, there is emotional foundation that is an integral part of the band’s energy. However, for the first time in their career, Built to Spill have made an album that is both lyrically and musically indifferent.