There is an elusive set of musical acts that have been around as long as we’ve been alive, but fill a role in our lives that’s hard to explain. Built to Spill, an indie rock band (from Boise, Idaho, of all places), fit somewhere in that enigmatic category for me. A 23-year-old act that dropped into existence at a strange turning point in rock history, the band floated in an uncertain middle ground between pop-rock, grunge, and freestyle jamming. Their unpredictable and exciting live performances were coupled with cryptic lyrics, distinctive guitar distortions, and free-flowing instrumental progressions that are far from easy to explain. Here’s an example of one of their earliest tracks from 1993:
By the time I made their acquaintance as a half-disillusioned high school student trying to expand his musical horizons, BTS had made another six albums, along with numerous EPs, singles, and compilations. I was first hooked by their well-seasoned, catchy tracks from the 2000s. This is one example:
After nearly fifteen years of development, they’d become something of a mythical band. Even their mature compositions were still able to occupy this ethereal, untainted creative space. Perhaps this was due to their ever-shifting lineup, but their sound was always fluid (varying from hard-driving rock surges to lighter tracks that were little more distorted than amplified acoustic music). Doug Martsch’s constant presence as lead singer ensured that their entire range was always Built to Spill, however. Something about his vocal quality was detached, disinterested, intensely present, and intellectual all at once.
But that was high school. For the past few years, Built to Spill had kind of faded away as my musical tastes changed. This month, I decided for some reason to go back and listen to a few of my favorite tracks. To my surprise, now, after almost six years of silence, they’ve returned for their eight bout with a new LP. This song, in particular, grabbed my focus:
Martsch has been able to preserve his everlasting vocal presence almost impeccably, perhaps a little more subdued than it once was. Even the overall instrumental quality and style has remained fairly consistent with their earlier works. After all this time, I wasn’t expecting Moon to be a game changer for BTS, but “Some Other Song” does display something very subtle at work. In ways that are hard to fully articulate, this song seems to have a reflective quality that appreciates the whole of BTS’s history, expressing Martsch’s own self-admitted doubts about his talents in the band’s more recent years. There are flavors of resignation in the midst of change, confusion in the midst of success, and it’s all captured in the line “I don’t know how to never fall apart.”
Untethered Moon is, as I had anticipated, not a breakthrough album. But it seems to be a real landmark in the band’s history, expressing itself with an emotional transparency that had felt veiled to me in the past. If my attempt to review their work comes across as somewhat blurry, then I can only admit that I’m trying to work out this band’s nature as a fixture in my life that’s been around for quite a while now. In some sense, it’s like having a conversation about my history as a writer and a rock fan all at the same time. Martsch’s sense of talent has come and gone like his fellow band members and his listeners have, and maybe that’s a part of why I feel so invited to spar with BTS’s songs over the years. If there’s one thing Built to Spill has always excelled in my experience of them, it’s leaving plenty of room for their listeners to enter this cryptic soundscape where personal issues are puzzled out in the company of a musical veteran and a shifting group of companions.