Guitar gymnastics and indie anti-heroism coexist on Built To Spill’s first record in more than six years
Guitars. Epic-length expository essays on the waking dream. Playful Neil Young-register vocals woven together with six-string textures that would be equally at home on a Dino Jr album or an Elliott Smith twilight ballad. Godlike guitar riffage and solos bolting to earth like lightning strikes in a tinder-dry forest. Talking Heads-like angst ladled over tremolo-bent melodies almost comically absurd in their construction. Slop and technical brilliance in equal measure, often nestled side-by-side in the same instrumental passage. Did I mention guitars?
By now, Built To Spill has assembled an eight-album back catalog spanning more than two decades—much of it on a major label, to boot—which zigzags almost effortlessly between spacey six-string sojourns (“Kicked It In The Sun”), sharp indie-rock anti-anthems (“Car”) and whatever it is you’d call the last songs on many of their albums, extended ruminations that essentially defy categorization (“Built Too Long,” “Untrustable,” “Broken Chairs,” “Tomorrow”) and suggest that the band has never had much truck with the machinery of the music biz. But it’s probably been a minute since the last “classic” BTS album—2001’s Ancient Melodies Of The Future comes to mind—and the band has certainly undergone a transformation or two over the course of its years together, morphing into frontman Doug Martsch and whomever he happens to be tracking with at any point in time.
So, let’s start here: Untethered Moon is almost undeniably a classic slice of BTS, but with a twist. You’ve got all the constituent parts present: the bracing call-to-arms opening track (“All Our Songs”), treatises on Martsch’s various dreamstates (“Living Zoo,” “Another Day”), six-string flights of fancy where the vocals and slide lines wrap together and unwind like strands of pipe cleaner (“Some Other Songs”), lyrical trips to the planetary rings where science and art collide (“C.R.E.B.,” which stands for “cAMP response element-binding protein,” the cellular basis for memory formation in the brain—and a nice conceit around which to build lines such as “I never meant to forget you/I always forget people I really like”) and the eight-minute-plus “When I’m Blind,” which closes the LP on about the most discordant note possible, like listening to Strats being ripped apart by a miter saw.
The twist? The pervasive mist of sadness that hangs over the album like a low-altitude cloud layer. For those of you hoping for another epic moment in which Martsch relates that “we’re special in ways that mothers appreciate,” you’ll be waiting a long time for that signature cockeyed humor to make an appearance. Instead, we have Doug in “Wha’ppen?” mode, asking where all his friends all went, why his world is falling apart: how did he get here, exactly? “I’ll be fine in Idaho, America, in the 21st century,” Martsch sings on the album’s opening track. “Oh yeah, that’s right/I’m sure I’ll be just fine.” He doesn’t sound very convinced. But it makes for some of his most compelling music in a decade, all the same.