BUILT TO SPILL: Perfect from Now & Then
The release of the new BUILT TO SPILL album, You in Reverse, sort of snuck up on me. It wasn't until I stumbled on a Tower Records email where the megastore was peddling autographed copies as part of their pre-sale for the record that I remembered the band had been working on new material. Half a decade has passed since the band's last album, Ancient Melodies of the Future, a somewhat patchy record with a few great songs peppered throughout.
After a well-received and somewhat obligatory Live album and a decent if somewhat lightweight solo record from frontman/songwriter Doug Martsch, it seemed like there might never be another Built to Spill record. I've interviewed Martsch two times and both times he gave me the impression that he was the kind of guy who only did things if and when he feels like doing them. Around the time of the Live record, we discussed the possibility of that being his last album for Warner Brothers (contractually, it was). He was totally unconcerned.
Well, at least I can fret no more. Warner Brothers is behind You in Reverse, and I'm glad to see they're doing what big record labels rarely do these days: supporting a band with mid-level record sales and letting them cultivate their own fanbase and following. (Of course, WB dropped that same ball with Wilco. Maybe they learned a lesson?) I like the new album a lot, especially album opener "Goin' Against Your Mind", an 8-minute guitar workout that recalls the band's earlier material.
I still need some time to listen to the new album, so I'd rather spend today's post telling you about the Built to Spill album that had a truly profound effect on me, Perfect From Now On. Perfect was actually the band's major label debut for Warner Brothers, and if you've heard it, you can only imagine the looks on the label honcho's face when he found out that this massive, dark record full of way-too-long-for-radio existential epics is where their money went. Even the band's indie debut, which featured similarly lengthy material, was full of fun and sarcasm (not to mention a few catchy ditties). Their second album, There's Nothing Wrong With Love found Martsch crafting intricate guitar-pop like "Big Dipper" and "Distopian Dream Girl". Great lyrics ("If it came down to your life or mine / I'd do the stupid thing / and let you keep on living"), hooks and quirky little guitar parts galore. . . these are hit songs, the strength of which sold Warner Brothers on Doug Martsch and company.
I wonder if they had any idea where Martsch was going to take things next. I certainly didn't, and neither did the friend of mine who told me how disappointed he was with Perfect. I trusted his judgment and avoided hearing the record myself for at least another year. I remember shopping at a Border's one night and deciding that I liked Built to Spill enough to gamble on buying the album.
It immediately hit me like a ton of bricks. I'm sure part of it was some sort of bizarre combination of time, place and emotional state, but Perfect From Now On was like this Rorschach inkblot of my entire life at that point. It spoke to every concern I was having, every shortcoming and every fear, and the music was as huge to me as the importance of figuring these problems out.
Right off the bat, after an ominous musical build-up, the opening verse of "Randy Described Eternity" has Martsch's title character trying to put the concept of eternity and infinity into some sort of tangible context. "Every thousand years / this metal sphere / ten times the size of Jupiter / floats just a few yards past the Earth / You climb on your roof / and take a swipe at it / With a single feather / hit it once every thousand years / 'til you've worn it down / to the size of a pea / Yeah, I'd say that's a long time / but it's only half a blink / in the place you're gonna be." This is serious business.
The second track, "I Would Hurt a Fly," digs even deeper as Martsch explores the darker side of human nature and the effect of the past on the future. "There's a mean bone in my body," Martsch warns as the band churns around his seemingly harmless voice. "It's connected to the problems that I won't take for an answer." The album's third track, "Stop the Show," seems (again, these are all my own interpretations) to examine who people are and who they present themselves as to everyone around them. Then you've got "Made Up Dreams." It's more lyrically vague, letting you fill in a lot of the blanks (but don't miss one of the best lyrics on the record: "No one wants to hear what you dreamt about, unless you dreamt about them").
It's at about this point in Perfect that the music becomes less ominous and more intricate and exploratory, almost as if the "narrator" is getting older and wiser as the record moves on. Put your headphones on and get a little lost in "Velvet Waltz." "You cold called everybody / but you haven't sold anything" is a great summation of how I felt after graduating from college and found myself in my first shitty job. If you love Neil Young and Crazy Horse, you're going to love the places this song goes in the last couple of minutes.
What follows after that is, in my opinion, one of the greatest album endings in the history of rock. The next three songs, "Out of Site," "Kicked it in the Sun," and "Untrustable," build to this amazingly majestic, almost empowering climax that feels to me like this unholy combination of the end of Kubrick's 2001 and The Beatles Abbey Road. The former for how the songs hint in some way at this larger of redemption and the latter for how things keep piling on top of each other until it's one big cacophonous, glorious explosion.
Obviously I can't give you that whole chunk (really, just go buy the album!), but for now check out the album's penultimate song, "Kicked it in the Sun". Like the other tracks making up the finale, this one actually seems like two or three songs stitched together. I love how the relaxed lounginess of the first half gives way to the second half through a lyric: "It's all right now, I'm getting over / Getting mine." The drums speed up and the the guitars tear into a new rhythm, as Martsch's "lead character" seems to begin some sort of process of acceptance or healing. "Despite his expectations, he turned out mediocre / His master plan was so-so / We're special in other ways / Ways our mothers appreciate." As I worked my first shitty job, I had time to contemplate the meaning behind "That net does not make me feel safe / All those holes make me nervous" and its relation to my discovery that the stability of having a job is an unpleasant compromise to living life like you thought it should be lived. After the company I worked for laid off the entire staff and gave us all a copy of this goddamned Golden Parachute book about landing on your feet, that whole "net" thing really seemed painfully apt.
The closing song, "Untrustable/Pt. 2 (For Someone Else," might be my favorite on the record, but it just didn't feel right posting that song here because it's THAT fucking good. The band deserves your dollar for what they pull off there. It's a great ending to a truly brilliant record. I still feel like Perfect From Now On is criminally underlooked, but maybe that's just because it meant so much to me at such a strange point in my life. It is Built to Spill's masterpiece, in every definition of the word. It's, dare I say, perfect.
A FEW BONUS TRACKS!!
"Big Mouth Strikes Again" (This is a Smiths cover from Doug Martsch's earlier band, TREEPEOPLE.)
"Someday" (Built to Spill have been known to do the occasional timely cover in their set, whether mourning George Harrison's death by playing "What is Life?" or covering a Macy Grey song that was topping the charts at the time. Here they pay homage to the Strokes.)
"Now & Then" (A b-side from another fantastic album in the Built to Spill canon, Keep it Like a Secret, which featured great stuff like "Carry the Zero".