Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret at 20
Built to Spill have a compelling anti-narrative: Guy in the middle of the ‘90s alt-boom goes as far as signing with a major label but ultimately just kind of raises a family in Idaho and nothing flashy happens even as a fluke.
They didn’t have a “Cut Your Hair” or scratch 120 Minutes. I’ve yet to hear a tale of significant resistance between Doug Martsch and Warner Bros., who released their first Built to Spill album, Perfect From Now On, in 1997 and —get this — everything the band’s done since. They’ve even permitted a live album, and it’s not exactly Barenaked Ladies’ Rock Spectacle; two of Live’s nine inclusions comprise 40 whole minutes of it. So the big story with Built to Spill is that a rock band’s world doesn’t have to get bigger if they don’t want it to.
That’s about it for backstory. I don’t believe their 1999 masterpiece Keep It Like a Secret consciously grafted Martsch’s increasingly psychedelic, sprawling guitar style from Perfect onto the recognizably poppier songs from its fantastic predecessor There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. But it did, synthesizing both sides of the band into their finest collection of songs and playing alike.
And no one plays like Martsch, whose closest recent analogue could only be Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth for his attachment to bending notes and beats far out of shape. Built to Spill don’t pretend to be making anything but reluctant rock anthems. How does that account for the addictive, circus-like figure on “Center of the Universe,” though? Or the reggae-indebted verses of “Time Trap?” Even the straightforward opener, “The Plan,” unspools from familiar peak-and-valley cymbal crashes to something more fractious in just a couple minutes, an inward shift that predates Radiohead’s “There There” by half a decade.
What’s most striking about Secret now is how large it sounds, which probably wasn’t the case when it was contemporaneous with, say, Limp Bizkit’s “Nookie.” The back-to-back “Bad Light” and “Time Trap” finish at markedly different, more urgent places than where they began; these ten songs actually travel somewhere. One of the album’s loveliest tunes, “Temporarily Blind,” sheds a few skins over the course of itself, beginning woozily as dream-pop before Scott Plouf’s cymbal crashes and subtle bowed-guitar chords announce a seismic shift: another of Martsch’s perfect riff-choruses, a punctuation of stomping relief with no verbiage necessary. Then a tensely coiling bridge, another “chorus,” that bridge again, which you realize has now replaced the verses, riff, solo, and a real bridge-or-end-section that spins out into strangely beautiful wah-wah line over a pogoing beat.
But these aren’t just astounding guitar odysseys. “Center of the Universe” and “Sidewalk” are the most concise pop songs the band ever released, and they deserved the airplay they were denied. Fuck it, fit the latter with horns. “Else” would register as melancholy as Pavement’s “Here” if not for the laser-beamed lead guitar lines that underlie the verses and make up all of the wordless refrain with two oscillating Edge-indebted notes that may as well be theremin. It’s as sparsely huge as prime Police. And the album’s big boy fulfills both the “epic” and “anthem” criteria.
You already know “You Were Right” is gonna be humungous when it starts with a guitar solo, and then a chorus, which Doug Martsch double-tracks his voice to make sure it’s loud enough, and that’s all before you even notice that every single line of the song references an AM staple: “You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold / You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind,” etc. Even emotionally, it’s a brave step forward from 1994’s “The Source,” which was almost survey-like in its pursuit of compassionate understanding: “What is it that makes you cry / And why?” With just four, tried-and-true chords, and the biggest sing-along refrain of Martsch’s career, “You Were Right,” deserves its own home on classic-rock radio.
Only the bluesy, nine-minute closer “Broken Chairs” sounds downright nasty after all the playful guitar warping that came before, and it’s the album’s biggest link to Martsch’s unmistakable Neil Young DNA, which he’d only truly extrapolate the following year on Live, devoting more than a third of the record to a three-guitar “Cortez the Killer” that threatens the original. “Broken Chairs” is there too, at twice the length of its studio version. But it’s telling that even as Secret’s darkest and most sprawling inclusion, it’s still broken up by catchy whistling.
After Keep It Like a Secret, the band kind of winnowed down with the occasional good pop song (“Strange,” “Conventional Wisdom”) or jam (“Mess With Time,” “Goin’ Against Your Mind”) but after three distinct winners and secret career statement Live, the closest thing Built to Spill ever made again to an essential work was their wonderful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman” in 2014. Their lack of publicity keeps us in the dark about why that may be, or maybe being away from the action faded Martsch’s virtuosic instrumental imagination. Or maybe age did it on its own. Maybe he’s fixing to unveil his best work in 20 years. More than with most genuine rock stars, we can suspect he got his fill years ago, but we don’t know the particulars. They’re a secret.