Built to Spill is one of those “legacy” bands who seem to be quietly making music from time immemorial. Unlike the pop princesses of today, these musicians take their sweet time, with albums coming out only every few years. Built to Spill dominated the rock scene in the 1990s with some powerful and ambitious music. However, the new millennium blues hit them hard; the band’s creative roll ground to a screeching halt. Although some flashes of inspiration shone through, such as “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” and “Strange”, it was surrounded by content that was overwhelmingly content with being just mediocre.
In 2006, the band released “You in Reverse” as a going back to its roots endeavour in typical self-reinvention fashion. The album turned the volume up on Built to Spill’s previous work, almost as if a swan song to their “amateur” status. With “There Is No Enemy”, the band is showing its age, comfortable in its maturity rather than clinging on to the last pretensions of youth. With maturity comes self-reassurance and confidence, and this album has this in loads. It is the work from a group who know exactly what they want to write, and the result is something unexpected: viz. the best album by the band by any measure.
Frontman, guitarist, and songwriter Doug Martsch leads his band of merry men into the unknown, cloaked in the protective cover of familiarity. The sound is similar to every record the band has put out since “Keep It Like a Secret” and yet it feels remarkably emotional with a not really misplaced urgency. It sounds like Mr Martsch, has, after roughly a decade of writer’s block, finally found something to say to his fans. The music is genuine rock, and produced by a group that practically defined the genre in the 1990s, it seems akin to the biblical Second Coming. For fans old and new alike, “There Is No Enemy” has something to like and enjoy; the album has the signature sound of their creators and the individual songs are long and patient, almost as if telling you the story of their creation. The tracks feel “complete” in a way the band had not managed to do previously and this, more than anything else, is a testament to how much Martsch and Co. have grown since their 1992 debut.
The lyrical content seems to be a compilation of life lessons by Mr Martsch speaking from experience; what makes this particularly interesting is that he has famously proclaimed that the only things that go into the words he chooses are ‘meter and suggestiveness’. Only Mr Martsch knows if the lyrics have personal connect, but you unfailingly hear the voice of a person defeated by life and humbled by loss in the songs in “There Is No Enemy”. Travelling through an entire emotional arc, indifference in “Tomorrow”, acceptance in “Life’s a Dream”, grief of death in “Pat”, and finally back to normalcy in “Good Ol’ Boredom”, the album seems like a throwback to the road the band has travelled on their storied, if at times forgettable, career. The album’s linchpin track “Things Fall Apart” describes a woeful plea to stay away, followed by a gasp of hopelessness in the chorus line; the official inspiration, according to the song’s author, is soul, but it is easy to see that it fits perfectly with the humdrum truth of daily life as well. You might get goose bumps.
The album on vinyl shows off the band in its finest as it goes from strength to strength in every track. There is the musical consistency that long-time fans will appreciate in the sound signature. And there is refinement in style that seeps into the writing in an almost subconscious manner, resonating inside your mind without you even realising it. You can hear the band’s inspirations from their previous work when listening to the album, giving it an eerie feeling of déjà vu while you appreciate the maturity of the lyrics. Think of it as reliving your final year of college after travelling back in time; a familiar feeling but with added perspective and life experience.
In the end though, “There Is No Enemy” is just a rock solid album. If the band’s next endeavour is as strong as this, it will finally have put an end to its underachieving spiel. For now though, there is more than enough in this album to keep us contented until the next one.
And as with all things rock, it doesn’t hurt to go a bit retro. Listen to the album on the vinyl format for that authentic rock sound that has become such a rarity in today’s digital age. It is how it is meant to be enjoyed, and you can find it at The Barbershop Music.