What can you say about Built to Spill that hasn't been said? They've been a band for 14 years, toured extensively, and released six studio albums (including this year's You in Reverse), a live record, and a collection of early material. Doug Martsch possesses a singular guitar virtuosity; he sings with a serenely ageless voice; he writes simple, universal lyrics of childlike wonder and stoned, existential angst; and he and his bandmates are revered elders of indie rock. This is all well-worn territory.
For a band with their level of longevity and success, Built to Spill possess little mystique. Rock stars are supposed to be myths with their own legends of origin, struggle, accomplishment, and hubris in which they fulfill archetypal roles: outlaw, hero, trickster, prophet, martyr. These narratives help us to contextualize their music and make sense of their songs. (M.I.A.'s popular image—the displaced daughter of a freedom fighter—lends meaning to her non-sequitur-heavy agitprop; the Strokes' bored-playboy persona explains their lackadaisical playing and barely awake vocals.)
Built to Spill's story is, by comparison, mundane. The band (currently Martsch, Scott Plouf, Jim Roth, and Brett Nelson) formed in 1992, worked hard, toured, released two albums independently (1993's Ultimate Alternative Wavers and 1994's There's Nothing Wrong with Love), underwent various lineup changes, and inked a deal with Warner Bros. in 1995. That deal allowed Built to Spill to continue making records and touring "at our own pace and in our own way," says Martsch. "I don't really know how to account for that. I think a lot of bands do have a lot more pressure. When we first signed the record deal, there were time limits to when we had to put out records," he continues, "but we were told it didn't really matter."
You in Reverse, Built to Spill's fifth record for Warner, marks their first new album in five years. "This was the first one we really took a long time on," reflects Martsch. "It didn't seem imperative that we do it or not, and when we went into the studio we wanted to be excited and ready to go."
The result is a fine addition to Built to Spill's impressive catalog. You in Reverse mixes pop with touches of psychedelia, classic rock, and even reggae. "Goin' Against Your Mind" opens the album with a propulsive, prog-rock stomp; "Traces" and "Just a Habit" recall the beautiful melancholy of 1997's Perfect from Now On; "Liar" and "Conventional Wisdom" provide the album's rough pop gems.
Throughout, the record showcases sophisticated production and simple, skilled songwriting. Martsch's lyrics recall sublime everyday experiences and feelings, but any attempts to interrogate them for actual meaning or story will fall flat.
"Lyrics are the last thing that happen in a song," says Martsch. "I come up with the melody and the meter for how the words will fit, and to me it's more a matter of how they sound phonetically, where vowels and consonants are, and how they rhyme and roll off the tongue.
"The music really props [the words] up and gives them a feeling and meaning that is usually more significant than they really are. As far as what they mean, I've just always tried to avoid really shitty lyrics, and as long as they're not just horrible, they can usually work if the music's all right."
And, of course, the music is more than all right. Built to Spill have been doing this so well for so long that it's hard to imagine them really screwing things up. The songs, though certainly moving and well made, are just songs, and Built to Spill are simply talented musicians working their craft. Their work resists mythologizing as much as they do themselves.
Live, Built to Spill demonstrate the importance of artistic brilliance over authorial intrigue. They might look like your dad's weekend basement jam band, but their music becomes larger than life, overshadowing the players onstage. Martsch humbly says their shows "tend to be a little bombastic."
In fact, Built to Spill's unassuming nature—their lack of rock-star fiction—is a big part of their charm. Their songs are resonant, but without specific meaning, so everything's open to interpretation. Their live performances are powerful, but without spectacle.
Built to Spill are simply nothing more than the music they make—and that's enough.