Built to Spill Keep It Like a Secret

Built to Spill’s ‘Keep It Like a Secret’ Still Surprises at 25

Has any songwriter used the words “things” and “sounds” and made small matters seem more significant and full of possibility as much as Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch?

Keep It Like a Secret
Built to Spill
Up / Warner Bros.
2 February 1999

In 1999, the Idaho-based alternative-rock band Built to Spill surprised listeners with their fourth album, Keep It Like a Secret. In those days, from its start in the early 1990s until about 2000, Built to Spill trafficked in the unexpected. The band still exists—or rather, the founder, leader, lead guitarist, lyricist, and singer Doug Martsch carries on as Built to Spill, accompanied by whomever he chooses to play with. Built to Spill can also still surprise, such as by releasing an entire CD of Daniel Johnston covers in 2020. As a brand, however, Built to Spill have long been a known quantity to their fanbase. Whatever the nature of a Built to Spill song, rhythm guitars will ring, lead guitars will curlicue, and percussive sounds will emerge from the middle of the rumbling bass and pounding drums as the vocalist’s high insect whine rides over the lower frequencies.

Those qualities were codified 25 years ago on Keep It Like a Secret. Warner Bros.’s release of this record didn’t come as a surprise because it was the second Built to Spill release on this major label. Regarding their label status, heads had turned a few years earlier when Warners thought signing the group would generate dollar signs. It would come as no surprise if the corporate numbers crunchers ended up shaking their heads over this deal.

Meanwhile, one surprise on Keep It Like a Secret was that the Built to Spill lineup remained basically intact from their previous record. The players were Martsch, drummer Scott Plouf, and bassist Brett Nelson (I repeat, Nelson—and further down, you’ll see why I repeat it).

At the band’s inception, Martsch indicated that he, like Mark E. Smith of the Fall and John Lydon of Public Image Ltd, would be the one consistent Built to Spill member. Lineup changes, Martsch felt, would keep him challenged and the music fresh. But in fact, Martsch, Plouf, and Nelson remained together for years—up to and after Keep It Like a Secret—though this trio was flexible enough to allow for guest appearances.

On the first Built to Spill record, 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, released on the indie label C/Z Records, they were mostly a trio but a different one. The players there were Martsch, drummer Ralf Youtz, and bassist Brett Netson (not Nelson—Brett Netson is a different person than Brett Nelson). Produced by the band with Todd Dunnigan, who is best known for this coproduction, Ultimate Alternative Wavers presented loose, lurching, sludgy rock, with noisy interludes and extended guitar leads that some alternative people heard as self-indulgent. Overall, the album suggested that slackers had woken up, assembled amongst their instruments, and found their way into jammy tunes with titles such as “The First Song” and “Get a Life”. 

The debut record contains all the appealing qualities of Built to Spill. However, the melodies and lyrics don’t easily reveal their secrets, so this record may be best left for checking out after their subsequent, more accessible work.

The second Built to Spill album, 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, released on the indie label Up Records, presents a great place to start. This charmer took a welcome turn into personal songwriting, melodicism, brevity, and delicacy. Nonetheless, it retained that essential Built to Spill ingredient: eloquently twisted guitar playing. On There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, the group consisted of Martsch, drummer Andy Capps, and bassist Nelson (not Netson; in other words, the progression was from Netson on the first album to Nelson on the second). 

The biggest surprise on There’s Nothing Wrong with Love was the production by Phil Ek, who has extensive indie credits but is best known for his long association with Built to Spill. Ek cleared out the sonic murk of early Built to Spill and cleanly distributed the musical elements, which in a sonic masterstroke also included vocals-enriching cello on a few cuts. One song on this album name-checked David Bowie‘s 1979 album Lodger, and that reference established a link not just to Bowie but to his late 1970s collaborator Brian Eno. Like Eno (as artist and producer, with Bowie and without), Ek and Martsch delighted in layering rhythms, guitar lines, and delicious details.

So promising was There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, compositionally and sonically, that Warner Bros., thinking it smelled a cross between Nirvana and the Cars or something like that, signed Built to Spill. The band, as though anticipating and having a good laugh about their audience’s trepidation regarding the jump from indie to major, ended There’s Nothing Wrong with Love with a bonus track: a tongue-in-check preview of the next Built to Spill album, which hadn’t been recorded or probably even written yet. This sonic “advertisement” included snippets of hardcore punk, new wave, and Dad-rock balladry, as though Built to Spill would be switching gears faster than a various artists compilation.

No one should have been surprised when the real next album—the Warner Bros. debut, 1997’s Perfect From Now On—sounded like none of those faux samples. The album did include one big surprise, possibly for the band, probably for Warner Bros., and definitely for fans: Perfect From Now On turned out to be the alternative equivalent of progressive rock, which, generally speaking, might have inhabited some alternative listeners’ music collections but was not openly embraced by the alt crowd. But Built to Spill translated prog rock in a way that even people who didn’t like prog could appreciate. How did Martsch et al. manage that feat?

On Perfect From Now On, the band were basically a four-piece: Martsch, drummer Plouf, bassist Nelson (not Netson!), and an additional guitarist, none other than Brett Netson (not Nelson! When you’ve worked with the combination of Nelson and Netson, it’s probably too tempting to keep combining them and welcoming the humorous confusion). Cellos returned, and mellotron appeared. Ek and Martsch coproduced.

In retrospect, this music’s expansiveness had precedents in Built to Spill’s previous albums. For example, Ultimate Alternative Wavers ended with “Built Too Long”, a three-part instrumental. On Perfect From Now On, the team combined such complicated constructions with the tunefulness of pop, the crunch of rock, and textures that both enchanted and hinted at depths.

However, if Perfect From Now On had one drawback even for devotees, it was how worked-over the music felt, as though only long hours of consideration could yield such massiveness. By contrast, two years later, Martsch, Plouf, and Nelson, minus Netson, sounded heavy yet light on their feet throughout Keep It Like a Secret. In other words—surprise!—the new album delivered a fresh take on familiar sounds.

Consider “The Plan”, which opens Keep It Like a Secret. The lyrics are abstract and contemplative yet perhaps more accessible than most Built to Spill lyrics: “But the plan won’t accomplish anything / If it’s not implemented / Like it’s always been.” This sleek, glistening track announced that Built to Spill had abandoned its previous album’s long structures and sonic density, as though Martsch and company had gotten the epic out of their system.

On “Center of the Universe”, the second track and the record’s lead single, the trio seems even more sprightly. The title suggests that Martsch is picking up the cosmic consciousness of Perfect From Now On‘s “Kicked It in the Sun”, but this song is about self: self-perception and self-presentation. “Who doesn’t think they’re at / The center of the universe being it?” The epic is contained within the individual.

Next, “Carry the Zero” resembles the pop songs on There’s Nothing Wrong with Love. However, it benefits from the enhanced production values that major-label money brings. 

On the first three Built to Spill albums, the excursions were so captivating, seeming to have sprung fully formed from Martsch’s head and hands, that some of us didn’t grasp the band’s debt to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. On 2000’s Live, that debt became explicit with a nearly half-hour cover of Young and Crazy Horse’s “Cortez the Killer”. In “Sidewalk”, the fourth track on Keep It Like a Secret, Built to Spill resemble not only Young but the alternative rockers Dinosaur Jr and Hüsker Dü. Martsch started out playing hardcore punk, and “Sidewalk” combines the off-kilter rhythm of hardcore and the slow chugging of a diesel train. “Can you wait for the sidewalk? Can it wait for you?” never sounded so urgent.

“Bad Light”, Keep It Like a Secret’s fifth track, recalls Pavement. The lyrics reference math and common sense, suggesting conceptual ties with “Carry the Zero” and “The Plan”. However, Keep It Like a Secret doesn’t seem like a concept album; it just reflects a particular sensibility at work during a particular time.

For example, time occupies the singer’s mind. “This history lesson / Doesn’t make any sense / In any less than / 10,000-year increments,” Martsch sings in “The Plan”. In track six, “Time Trap”, he waxes existential: “It’s barely yours on loan / What you think you own.” Life’s tricky, though: “‘Cause you could never know that / In a time trap.” Indeed, the passage of time and life runs through Martsch’s catalog, from Ultimate Alternative Wavers’ “Three Years Ago Today” to There’s Nothing Wrong with Love’s “In the Morning” to Perfect from Now On’s “Randy Described Eternity”. Meanwhile, among the rhythms on “Time Trap” is quasi-reggae, which Built to Spill explore for the first but not last time.

Track seven, “Else”, finds Built to Spill delivering delicate psychedelia and dream pop. Imagine, say, Lush or the Cocteau Twins getting physical and metaphysical: “Your body breaks / Your needs consume you forever / And with this lies the need to be here together.”

Then comes either a major throwaway or the album’s linchpin: a guitar workout whose lyrics draw on FM radio staples. In addressing “you”, the singer tells his predecessors they “were wrong when [they] said everything’s gonna be all right” (as, for example, Bob Marley did in “No Woman No Cry”). They “were right” when they issued negative pronouncements, such as Kansas’ “all we are is dust in the wind” and John Mellencamp‘s “life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone”. With time on his mind again, Martsch could have cobbled this song together in his sleep, but the band plays it with gusto.

If you haven’t been won over yet—if the lovely penultimate track, “Temporarily Blind”, seems to mostly relieve the intensity of “You Were Right” and recapitulate the rest of the record—then the whistling interlude during Keep It Like a Secret’s final track, “Broken Chairs”, might do the trick. The lyrics to this one are by a poet, Uhuru Black (who was not the reggae band Black Uhuru). Martsch sounds inspired by cryptic lines such as “Who themselves are mirrors of apprehensions in the falling sun”, but by the end, he has abandoned sense in favor of repeating “Well, all right” in classic-rock fashion, as the band hammer like the Jimi Hendrix Experience on Electric Ladyland or Led Zeppelin on Physical Graffiti

Built to Spill reached a peak, which is not to say permanently peaked, on Keep It Like a Secret. The next studio album, 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future, had many fine moments, such as the wistful “The Weather”, but the whole suggested that treading water might lead to sinking. One more release like this and followers might have abandoned ship, but Built to Spill regained power and adventurousness on 2006’s You in Reverse, whose perfect first track alone made the album a winner. The rest of their catalog—from indie to Warners and back to indie, with ever-changing lineups—ranges from solid to inspired: minutely autobiographical or at least introspective, unpretentiously philosophical, and majestic. As a guitarist, Martsch has acquired an effortless transcendence that is worth experiencing in concert.

Has any songwriter used the words “things” and “sounds” as much as Doug Martsch? Has any songwriter made such small matters seem more significant and full of possibility?