In 1997, Built to Spill released their third album, and their first for a major label, Perfect from Now On. In 2008, the stalwart band have taken to the road to perform Perfect from Now On in its entirety. This week, eight writers look back on the album, song for song.
"Randy Described Eternity"
"Randy Described Eternity" is a launching pad for the empty space between your body holding your guts (built to spill onto the pavement) and the vast cavern of forever-land eternity. The way Doug Martsch manipulates the thin, hollow body inside his electric guitar toward extinction and monument marks our inability to hold the concept completely in mind. This ain't thrill-seeking exploration or death taunt; it's a slow plod toward guitar inexpressible, and frustration with same. No benedictions or apology, just a few shafts (one hopes) of illumination. Electric guitar solos simultaneously battle against postmodernity and worship it—feedback jamming the alternating currents into sound sculptures of pain and ecstasy. White-boy field hollers: Slow it down, add pedal steel guitar, and you have a country song; keep the guitar/drums setup, add a light show, and you have the rock existential thing. Martsch doesn't really close in on death, but he remains, on his guitar, searingly alive. DAVID SHIELDS
"I Would Hurt a Fly"
I can't get that sound you make out of my head. Nobody else can hear it, and you wouldn't want them to. The sound of you napping perfectly, content like nothing could ever happen to perfection.
I once thought if I tried I could be perfect. If I did what one should, was nice and good, worked very hard, one day I could become as pretty and perfect as you. But I was wrong. The way you are is never made—it's only ever born. (As my mother used to say before she died, young, having breathed too long the nasty crap you and yours made her clean your silver, toilets, and messes with.) You lie on your chaise in that Maxfield Parrish light looking like Adonis or a Tadzio while everyone around you is working our asses off—fanning you with that ostrich feather, spritzing lavender water on the marble floor, crushing mint into your cool iced drink. I'm cleaning the john in the back. Everyone around you is imperfect, horrid, dirty. A dwarf, a witch, a girl. Obsessed with what you think is "low," with what we have and what we don't and how we work our fucking asses off for nothing. Your perfect napping mouth is slightly open. You have no idea what I am about to pour into your gaping maw. REBECCA BROWN
"Stop the Show"
When Perfect from Now On came out in 1997, I was 14. My older brother bought it the day it came out. I didn't know what was going on. He gave me a passionate lecture about how Built to Spill were the antithesis of sellouts: "Even though they signed to a major label, they're still making records they want to make." Still no idea what was happening. It wasn't until the next year in a friend's car listening to a live version of "Stop the Show" that Built to Spill finally made sense. The song was the perfect gateway to the band's catalog, with all the right elements for a newbie: dreamy instrumental intro, intense guitar and drum buildup, rocking verse, blissfully drugged-out bridge, defiant lyrics. It was an adolescent revelation, like finally figuring out what boners were good for—how had this amazing thing been in front of me all this time and I didn't know what to do with it until now? JEFF KIRBY
Looking up lyrics is always a terrible idea. I'd always loved "Made-Up Dreams" for the made-up word at the end of the first verse: "These thoughts are old/Let's keep it cold/Draw lines on me/Try history/Tryology." Tryology: the study of trying. It has an abstract removal from actual trying, a connotation of dreamily watching ourselves flailing. Which is both how the song sounds (sprawling, abstract, dreamy), and how Seattle felt back in 1997, when Hype! had tacked the epitaph on grunge, the city was getting its Niketown and Planet Hollywood, and people (me, at least) were wondering what we were trying to be. It's also how I felt back in 1997, when I first heard the record, lying on the dusty Oriental carpet in my friend Stephen's apartment on a depressing rainy afternoon, probably in late November. I was 19, flailing around in early college, feeling useless. "Tryology," I thought. "Maybe that's my major. I'm not succeeding. I don't even know how to try." Eleven years and one Google search later, I find out the lyrics are: "Dry lines on me/Dry history/Dryology." Dryology? What the hell is that supposed to mean? BRENDAN KILEY
One of my first assignments for The Stranger was the daunting task of interviewing Doug Martsch of Built to Spill. It was kind of a perfect storm of a bad interview—I was totally green, he was a seasoned vet; I overprepared (haven't done that since), he mostly wanted to talk about basketball. Worst of all was Martsch telling me, in response to some dumb question about what some specific lyric meant, that he usually wrote melodies first and then just figured out whatever nonsense words fit them phonetically. As an aspiring writer, it broke my heart a little, even though I know that some bands are "lyrics bands" and some bands are "music bands," and it's okay that Built to Spill is maybe more the latter. But more than that, the answer just ruined all the other questions I'd prepared about the band's lyrics.
Anyway, the meaning is really up to the listener (Martsch may have said something to this effect, too); profundity can come from interpretation as much as from intent. So on "Velvet Waltz," when Martsch sings, "If there's a word for you/It doesn't mean anything/I've got some words for you/They don't offer anything," over an appropriately timed and textured blanket of guitars, maybe it really doesn't mean anything. But all of the song's enveloping nonsense, from the chiding koan "You thought of everything/But some things can't be thought" to the "Kicked It in the Sun"–foreshadowing refrain that leads into the song's jammy coda, sure as hell sounds like it means something. ERIC GRANDY
"Out of Site"
I think of seesaws—and children yelling, throwing Frisbees on a wide deck.
I'm standing at the back of a dirty rock club sheltered underneath the Interstate 5, watching three bearded men wrench brilliance from guitar strings, improbably held as heroes to a generation ("The new Grateful Dead," someone once whispered), the solos throbbing and tormented, the vocals indecipherable (and correctly so). I'm thinking of noise: the way noise can hurt, the way noise can uplift, how sometimes solace can only be found in the storm after the calm. I think of the three Rs—repetition, repetition, and repetition (as Mark E. Smith once memorably put it)—and the fact that fade-outs in popular music are greatly undervalued. "Out of Sight" dips and swoops and lingers in bitterness, pulsates, hits euphoria too easily, and taps instant nostalgia the way only forgotten friends can. Listen for the off-key blues wail, and sigh. EVERETT TRUE
"Kicked It in the Sun"
I feel good when this song begins and reach a climax of feeling good at 0:38 when Doug Martsch says, "You made me talk/No, you made me listen" because it seems like there are emotional implications, like someone is sad. At 1:01, when he says, "Tiny TV," I try to block out sociological thoughts, which interfere with my emotions. I try to think, "He's being quirky due to depression, it isn't a critique of America." When he says, "Kicked it in the sun," I think, "Someone kicked someone in the crotch in a movie in slow motion with fireworks in the background at night, giving it a solar system–like tone." Around 4:15 I think things like, "Change it now or you'll hear the strange part." Forty percent of the time I change it. Sixty percent of the time I continue listening and experience something at 4:21 and 4:44 like, "I won't get things in life that I want." The drums from 6:09 to the end make me feel like I haven't slept in 20 hours and am writing an essay on something I don't understand. I like this song a lot overall. I usually listen to an acoustic version. TAO LIN
"Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)"
My love for Built to Spill didn't come early or easy. Shortly after moving to Seattle in the mid-'90s I went to see the band play and was violently appalled by the twirling hippies that populated the crowd. They were spinning and stinking, had no regard for personal space, and seemed utterly blissed out by the music as well as themselves, which you kind of have to be, I guess, to listen to "Untrustable" without smarting at the lyrics. As satisfying as it feels to sing out, "You don't like anything/'Cause you're unlikable," a modicum of self-awareness can set off a devastating case of the shudders as you wonder if Martsch's words might spell out the reason you feel like such an asshole all the time. Even though (in my opinion) "Untrustable" is the best song on the album, I'd feel my shoulders creeping toward my ears from the very first line, "You can't trust anyone/'Cause you're untrustable," and was a quivering mess by the eight-plus minutes it takes to finish with, "Can you feel the darkness shining through?" Because, man, back in those days I could.
After the band stopped touring, and the hippies stopped twirling, my love for Built to Spill flourished. I may not be quite the asshole I once was, but "Untrustable" remains a demand to explain yourself, which is what makes it such an awesome, enduring song. KATHLEEN WILSON
Rebecca Brown's new book of essays, American Romances, will be published by City Lights in spring 2009. Eric Grandy still hates doing interviews. Brendan Kiley is an old man trapped in a young man's body. Jeff Kirby basically came up with the idea for this article. Tao Lin's website is Reader of Depressing Books. David Shields's most recent book is The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Everett True (the Legend!) is a former music editor of The Stranger, author of Nirvana: The Biography, publisher of Plan B, and current resident of Australia, where he is very popular. Kathleen Wilson is also a former music editor of The Stranger but not a resident of Australia.