Built to Spill - There Is No Enemy
Record Label: Warner Brothers
Release Date: October 6, 2009
Jimi Hendrix. Slash. Eric Clapton. Doug Martsch. Wait, what? Okay, so maybe Martsch and his band Built to Spill aren't exactly racking up royalties for being featured in plastic-guitar games, but one thing's for certain: he's unquestionably one of my guitar heroes. Since the early '90s, Built to Spill have released a succession of stunning records led by Martsch's intricate guitar workouts and trademark wail, and with the release of their seventh album There Is No Enemy, they have predictably served up yet another slab of simply essential listening.
Structurally, Built to Spill's output has varied from record to record, from the short pop bursts of Keep It Like a Secret to the sprawling compositions of Perfect From Now On, and There Is No Enemy strikes up a sort of balance between those two approaches. Early on, the songs are tight and succinct, with the first three tracks running under four minutes each. Opening with a distorted squall before settling into an infectious repetitive riff, "Aisle 13" serves as an immediate reminder of what makes this band so amazing-- all their songs are singularly Built to Spill songs, but they never sound as if they're ripping themselves off. The pace slows for the slide guitar-dusted "Hindsight," as twangy a song as they've recorded, and the fittingly calming "Nowhere Lullaby," before picking back up with the hopeful "Good Ol' Boredom." Anyone recovering from a rough patch will instantly relate: "Not so bad seems so great."
The high water mark for me on this set is the Americana-tinged slow jam "Life's a Dream," on which Martsch sings, "Finally decided, and by decide I mean accept, I don't need all those other chances I won't get," but there seems to be more comfort than resignation in his acceptance. This record as a whole is arguably the band's most interesting lyrically, and the contemplative tone established in "Dream" continues with the very dark-sounding "Oh Yeah," the only real lyrics of which (besides "oh yeah," of course) are "If God does exist, I'm sure he will forgive me for doubting, for he'd see how unlikely he himself seems." It's almost as if Martsch is channeling his inner Isaac Brock.
Some might find "Oh Yeah" a bit ponderous to get through, but the reward for sticking it out is "Pat," a furious flurry of distortion that makes Built to Spill sound like a fantasy hybrid of themselves and Source Tags and Codes-era ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Clocking in at under three minutes, it's over in a flash and leads into the ballad "Done," a gorgeous tune that nonetheless could have benefited from being a minute or so shorter.
"Planting Seeds" is a straight-up powerpop gem that might have been a hit on mid-'90s alternative radio, and finds Martsch reassuring "You can make it if you try, and if you don't, it's still gonna be alright." A little less cheery are the album's two closing extended jams, "Things Fall Apart" and "Tomorrow." On the latter, Martsch deviates from the going-with-the-flow vibe, unexpectedly delivering the lines "The more you have to live for, the more you love your life, the harder it will be for you to die, and we all want living and dying easy."
Despite a few moments of less-than-lighthearted sentiment, There Is No Enemy succeeds in being what pretty much all their albums are for me: comforting. Their music wears like a favorite sweater, perfect for any situation, capable of reinforcing moments of triumph or granting solace in times of despair. In my mind, they probably won't top Keep It Like a Secret, but Built to Spill are pretty much models of consistency, and There Is No Enemy is, not surprisingly, a hell of a great album.