As a songwriter and guitarist, Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch has “a firm background in remembering,” as he sings in “Bad Light,” on the band’s beguiling new album, Keep It Like a Secret. Martsch’s zigging, zagging vocal melodies and explosive, loud-soft-loud hook dynamics are right out of the Pixies and Husker Du song manuals. There are traces of Lou Reed and the hyperwriting of ’66 Bob Dylan in Secret‘s lyric mix of run-on, conversational syntax and curveball wordplay (“I can’t be your apologist very long/I’m surprised that you’d want to carry that on/Count your blemishes, you can’t, they’re all gone” — “Carry the Zero”).
And if you break down the interlocking shimmer and sting of Martsch’s overdubbed guitars, you find an odd blend of precedents: the spiky, backwoods-existentialist phrasing of Robbie Robertson; Tom Verlaine’s silvery, spit-curl flourishes; the glassy strum of the Smiths’ Johnny Marr. But Martsch’s particular genius — which has slowly, assuredly unfolded in the course of Built to Spill’s four studio albums since 1993 — is the vivid tension he generates between earnest romanticism and howling dischord. Built to Spill songs are typically about the physics of colliding emotions, about dissension at home and in the head. Nobody lives happily ever after on Keep It Like a Secret (nobody stops trying, either). Yet there is something very whole and intoxicating about the way Martsch sets unraveling relationships against fastidiously scripted riff fireworks: peals of church-bell treble; long, molten slide loops; the multitracked dogfighting at the end of “Broken Chairs.”
In short, Built to Spill — Martsch, bassist Brett Nelson and drummer Scott Plouf — make big music out of everyday mess. “Center of the Universe” is a strong narcissism-and-self-pity cocktail (“I heard what I said to you/Thought it was all understood”) — until the chorus, all power chords and elephantine stomp, blows all that sour juice out of the way. Martsch, Nelson and Plouf maintain a creamy-pop poise through most of “Carry the Zero,” playing an incongruously lustrous shuffle (part Luna, part Smiths) against Martsch’s snaps of cold regret and nervously wordy gibes (“And you’re so occupied with what other persons are occupied with/And vice versa”). Then Martsch pulls back from the mike, turns up the amps and loses himself, gloriously, in a noisy guitar chorale that somehow combines the orchestral density of Jimi Hendrix with the brittle immediacy of Wire.
On Built to Spill’s 1997 major-label bow, Perfect From Now On, Martsch indulged his prog-punk fantasies by stretching most of the songs way past the six-minute mark. In comparison, Keep It Like a Secret is tightly wound clang, effectively understated in spots. “Else” may or may not be about some kind of codependency (“Your body breaks/Your needs consume you forever/And with this lies the need/To be here together”), but there is a warm, fluid calm in Martsch’s voice and the crystalline pingponging of his guitar. Plouf and Nelson’s pneumatic drive and Martsch’s bright, skidding licks in “Sidewalk” are totally Eighties — in a U.K. indie-pop, Rough Trade Records sort of way — and good, taut fun to boot.
Martsch — a native of Idaho who still lives in Boise, far from the maddening music biz — projects an eccentric aloofness from rock convention and cliche in his high, strangled singing and strange, often prickly heart plays. In fact, Martsch, Nelson and Plouf are, in their way, stone classicists, and they prove it, with a shot of wry, in “You Were Right,” a litany of old Hendrix, Dylan, Pink Floyd and Kansas lyrics set to overkill guitars and melodramatic waltz time. Verging on ham-fisted irony, “You Were Right” is really a tribute to the enduring power of even the most trite, exhausted rock hits (“You were right when you said/All we are is dust in the wind/You were right when you said/We are all just bricks in the wall”), to the way the most shopworn riff or phrase can still make more sense than anything in the so-called real world.
Built to Spill have not yet reached that kind of immortality. But they have the ambition, the “remembering” and the guitars to get there. And with Keep It Like a Secret, they’ve come a whole lot closer.