[5 October 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sometimes we hold classics against the artists who make them, don’t we?
How else can you explain the underwhelming response to Built to Spill’s Ancient Melodies of the Future way back in 2001. Did it measure up to Perfect From Now On or Keep It Like a Secret? No, but those are two of the best indie rock albums, you know, ever. But looking back, Ancient Melodies of the Future is a solid collection of songs. Imperfect perhaps, but more notable not as a misfire, but as an end of the line for the band’s moody texture. At least for a while.
Which explains 2006’s You in Reverse. The album wasn’t bad, but where other records felt like explorations, this felt unfinished and unsure. The five years since the last record, the pushing towards other more straight rock sounds, even the chugging drums, came off as rootless and untethered in a way we hadn’t heard Doug Martsch and company be before.
But that was merely preamble to There Is No Enemy. The feeling you get hearing this new record is that Built to Spill needs no new road. The road they’ve treaded for nearly two decades has plenty of ruts to dive into, over and over again, and this record finds them recapturing old sounds while simultaneously twisting them into new and bracing sounds.
The entire album is spacey and sprawling, full of thick guitar textures, and steady but spare rhythms. Electronics, strings, and horns swirl and swell around these songs, giving the sonic palate of each a staggering breadth. Go no further than the opener “Aisle 13” to hear guitars groan and creak through dreamy verses only to harden their edge and deliver thick riffs in the chorus. Echoed notes haunt the stripped-down soul of “Nowhere Lullaby”. And, the bittersweet ache of “Things Fall Apart” is laid on a web of intricate but fragile notes that burst in a tense, frustrated guitar solo before settling back into tired acceptance.
But these huge guitar jams aren’t all about moody atmosphere and sadness. “Pat” is a quick blast of catchy-as-hell power rock. “Good Ol’ Boredom” has an insistent chug that fittingly thumps along beyond all logic and embeds itself in your head. And “Planting Seeds” is a bright and stringy alt-country shuffle. Each one recalls the tight, buoyant melodies of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, and those small bright pieces bolster the album’s unruly texture. These songs are the fires that spread the thick smoke over the rest of the record, surging with a life that spills over into even the most stretched-out slow jams here.
And in front of it all is Doug Martsch’s demyelinated howl. He can haunt these songs with a high moan, or turn on a high-energy nasal shout. And while like other records the words are more impressionistic than head on, Martsch captures well on this record the cycle of recession life. The isolation and crushing worry, the cycle of small victories and minor setbacks, and most importantly the insistence to press on. Even if sometimes it takes some sneaky convincing—at one point, he sings “Everyone is this world is just like me,” as if to find comfort in the anonymity—there is always a reason around to press on. Because, in this foggy world most of the obstacles seem imagined.
There Is No Enemy is not a return to form. It’s a re-imagining of a band’s distinct and timeless sound. The precocious energy of their early records, the moody dreamscapes of Perfect From Now On, the guitar heroics of Keep It Like a Secret. It’s all here, but each piece is reshaped and threaded through the twisted tendrils of country and rock stretching into the atmosphere. “Waiting for our answer,” Martsch sings to start off closer “Tomorrow”. And while we’re all surely waiting for a brighter day, this is a hell of a soundtrack to keep us company until we get there.