Exciting and heart breaking, and original, yet familiar; Built to Spill’s new album is everything that I had hoped that it would be. There is No Enemy is comprised of eleven tracks which were recorded over a span of three years. I have to admit that, when you love a band as much as I love this one, there is always a huge fear of disappointment that accompanies the anticipation of a new release. This is especially true when a band has been around for a while and they seem unlikely to produce anything that could out-do what they have already created in the past. For the many who share these concerns, I am elated to report to you that, Yes, I am in love with this album, and Yes, I do want to marry it.
The band is still based around Doug Martsch and his usual group of cohorts (Scott Plouf , Brett Nelson , Jim Roth, and Brett Netson), but this album also features numerous other guest musicians and past collaborators. Sam Coomes (Quasi), cellist John McMahon, Scott Schmaljohn (Treepeople), and Paul Leary (Butthole Surfers) all make appearances. Martsch’s wife, Karena Youtz is even credited with providing “some lyrics”, but this isn’t anything entirely new. She actually helped to write “Cleo“, one of my favorite songs from their 1994 release, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love.
There is no Enemy seems much less abstract than Built to Spill’s previous work, but it is no less profound. Lyrically, things are just more straight-forward than they have been in the past and, over all, it feels a little more “mature”. It’s still as contemplative as anything that you would expect from this band, but it just comes across with a slightly harsher delivery [I mean that in the best way possible]. It has a varied range of tracks, which flow from poppy, up-tempo, to dreamy and introspective. The song “Good Ol’ Boredom” shares the same joyful, funk-boing bass style of a George Harrison song, complete with up-tempo drums and repetitious, sunny background vocals. When overlaid with Martsch’s apathetic vocals and candid lyrics, it makes for an eccentric and wonderful experience. The next track, “Life’s a Dream”, features a horn accompaniment by Danny Levin. It evokes a euphoric ache in the belly with its lacing of La, La, Las that sound as if they came right out of Neil Young’s “Down by the River“. Levin’s horn-work also accents the tune “Things Fall Apart”, along with Roger Manning (Jellyfish/Moog Cookbook) on organ. This song actually stings my heart. It’s almost as if it is able to cut me wide open and heal the wound at the same time. Everything blends together so perfectly. There is No Enemy often feels as if you are reading somebody else’s personal journal and I am sure that, to some extent, this is actually true. It’s like experiencing someone else’s monotony without feeling the boredom. You can sense their pain, frustration, humility, and even their subtle gratitude for all of it.
Doug Martsch’s voice sounds like what falling in love feels like. While it’s very distinct, it possesses the same haunting quality of someone like Neil young. Even with reference to other musicians, BTS has succeeded in creating a completely unique and sincere sound that is all their own. Nothing they’ve ever done could be adequately compared to anything else, really. Two seconds into any Built to Spill song and the listener is instantly aware that it’s them, because their song structuring is so unusual. The rambling guitar meshed and entangled with unconventional, narcotic melodies; it all seems accidental but, at the same time, tightly executed. They really utilize their equipment, making intricate patterns with sound and often, experimenting with multiple tempos within the same song. Somehow it all comes together in something like an illusion. The fact that they have never tried to fit into a particular category or tried to adhere to a certain formula, has only added to their greatness. I think that this approach has also resulted in a form of total artistic freedom which has allowed them to progress naturally, only getting better with time.
I was at a BTS show once, where somebody jokingly called out “Play some Skynyrd!!!” It’s a typical cliché move, but it resulted in me witnessing the most stunning version of “Free Bird” that I have ever heard in my life. They played it note for note and word for word, only it sounded as pure as the first time that I had ever heard the song. It had been so played-out in my head that I had almost forgotten just how beautiful that song could be. It actually brought me to tears. I also saw a Sheryl Crow interview once where she mentioned how much “Freebird” had influenced her, so the host asked her to play it. Let’s just say… it didn’t go quite as well. My point is not only that they are technically and artistically outstanding musicians, but there is an element of authenticity in their music, which plays an equally vital role in its effectiveness.
This new album plunges into the depths of emotion in a way that contrasts with their most previous effort. While You in Reverse was still a fantastic album, described as “epic” and “flawless” by many big-shot music critics, it lacked the intimate element that I have always treasured most coming from this band. Although there was a lot that I loved about it, I wasn’t “in love” with it. It just didn’t feed my soul the way I needed it to, or the way that their best work is capable of. Nevertheless, many a pretentious hipster placed it triumphantly at the top of their lists as “definitive Built to Spill”. It was good to see their fan base, finances, and recognition get another deserved boost but, in a way, it felt bittersweet. I understand that everyone “loves” Built to Spill now and I know that it will sound elitist but, I often doubt that many of the strictly You in Reverse-era fans feel that “It’s 1996 and you’re in the back seat of a friend’s car cruising around your hometown, high as a kite, pondering the notion that perhaps there really is someone out there who’s like you, and that you’re not really all alone, for the very first time in your whole life” type of love. Arguably, one of the best things about There is No Enemy is that it revives some of that same feeling, which was less potent the last time around.
There is this quote from The Catcher in the Rye that goes, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” While this is very much the case with Built to Spill, it isn’t even what has made them so much a part of my ideology. What does make them seem so magical is that, after listening to their music, it begins to feel like whoever wrote those lyrics really is your friend and that they actually do know you. This effect is probably conveyed because their music shares the same qualities that I would expect from a friend; it’s honest, individual, and unpretentious. It’s not forced, or interested in achieving contrived reactions from the listener.
I have been lucky enough to have had the chance to meet Mr. Martsch several times. His speaking voice possesses the same soft, sleepy and tragic tone that his singing voice does. He’s got these soulful, sunken grey eyes that seem so kind, and he’s extremely polite. It’s hard to understand how anyone could be nervous around such a down to earth guy. Still, I was so flustered the first time that I met him that speaking became pretty challenging for me. The first time that I actually spoke with him was while he was doing his solo thing. I had managed to catch a free show in Park City, Utah. The event was part of the Sundance Film Festival and it was very intimate. Some lady yelled at me for whispering with a reporter from San Francisco while Doug was performing, so I was too afraid to take pictures or anything during the show. I waited until the performance was over and then asked the songwriter if I could get some photos of him. Without hesitation, he agreed and led me to a backstage area where his son and some other people were hanging out. With various, seemingly “important”, members of the press asking for his picture and pining for his attention, he politely told them that he was going to talk to me first. He posed for a picture with me and his son, who was about 8 at the time. On another occasion, I had left my ID behind at a club in Seattle. When I returned to get it, he was there all alone and taking down equipment. I think I must have scared the shit out of him, but I took this opportunity to thank him for his music and to tell him exactly how much it has meant to me. I have seen a lot of people give Doug Martsch thanks for providing them with something to identify with, though, so I’ve never felt too silly about it. Plus, he’s just so damned nice! The last time that I had the pleasure of speaking with him, it was like talking to an old friend. This time, he posed in a photo with me and my, then one 1 ½ year-old, daughter and even cracked a few jokes. I wasn’t nervous at all, like I had been years before, and based on my interactions with him, Martsch has never seemed like someone who would ever want his fans to feel awkward or place him on a pedestal.
I have thought many times about how too much attention actually appears to make Doug downright uncomfortable. I recall one show where the whole audience sat down on the floor, “criss-cross-applesauce” for a performance. I believe that it was at his request, but don’t quote me on that (I used to drink a lot). The earnest and humble “thanks” spoken at the end of each song, during live shows, reminds me of the bashful “Thanks… I like to play” mumbled by Garth Algar, after his crazy drum solo in the movie Wayne’s World. It’s just funny, because I have seen the whole band walking towards the stage, through the packed crowd of their own sold-out show, and their own fans weren’t even getting out of their way. They just seem so much like your typical, average guys that people didn’t even notice them. Built to Spill doesn’t seem too concerned with that “celebrity” form of recognition and attention anyway. There is No Enemy works, partially because it projects the same honesty and disregard for praise as its creators. The album is just a little bolder than the ones before it, but It’s still genuine. It’s not concerned with who’s going to like or where it’ll fit, either in the BTS catalog or in general. I feel like the music of Built to Spill is growing up with me, just like an old friend and There is No Enemy is a welcomed and much needed addition to my life’s soundtrack.