With his band Built to Spill, Doug Martsch takes a philosophical approach to rock. A singing voice that’s both light as air and gruff, a head-in-the-clouds daydreamer’s perspective that’s tempered with seemingly real-life anecdotes and stories, a taste for the heady in rock, with a constant nods towards Neil Young and Crazy Horse in particular . . . all of this adds up to rock music that carries weight while appealing to your inner child.
Martsch’s first solo album delves into a genre which has its own blend of physicality and mysticism: the blues. There’s ghosts and vast American landscapes echoing in the familiar sound of blues guitar playing, electric and acoustic, which Now You Know‘s songs are drenched in. That sound fits Martsch’s songs and poeticisms like a glove. While he’s obviously trying to dive headfirst into a genre that he’s not associated with, Now You Know doesn’t feel like an experiment at all. In fact, more than anything it feels like a Built to Spill album, just wearing a slightly different outfit.
“There’s no way of deciding which half of life is less inviting/awake or a dream” Martsch sings at one point, reflecting his standard probing into the workings of the universe while echoing the feel of the music itself, which often walks that beautiful line between dream-life and awake-life. While Martsch’s voice to me always suggests dreams and mystery, here the spotlight shines brightly on his guitar. On one level, Now You Know is above all a guitar album, an exercise in riding the history of American blues guitar and seeing where it goes. Whether he’s playing slow (“Offer”, “Dream”) or in a rollicking, down-home party style (“Window”, “Lift”), Martsch’s guitar speaks loudly and clearly. Where most of the album features him solo, there’s a few songs that have a fuller band present; these songs tend to deviate from straight blues, either by sounding more like Built to Spill or by going into altogether different, more synthesizer-tinged territory. There’s also one classic blues cover, a dark, ferocious take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s gospel-blues number “Jesus”.
By integrating his own personality and interests with that of the blues, Martsch illuminates the connections between them. When he sings lines like, “Happened again last night/woke up buzzing/wanted to escape my limbs and the certainty of death,” it’s hard not to think of the history of blues songs about the cycle of life and death, about the perennial hellhounds on our trail.
While on Now You Know the relationship between Martsch and the blues feels natural, it’s hard not to wonder if Martsch sees this as a chance he’s taking, if he’s concerned if “indie rock” fans will follow him into the legacy of the blues. While the closing “Stay”, which opens with the phrase used as the album title, is a treatise to a lover that might leave, it sounds like it could just as easily be meant for his fans (i.e., now you see I have more interests than just rock, will you stay with me?). If he’s worrying about his fans, he shouldn’t. Now You Know has the same quiet majesty that drew music fans to Built to Spill in the first place.
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