Before I was on the Built to Spill bandwagon (which I firmly jumped on with2006’s stellar You in Reverse – an album that was maligned by critics but, for me, is mostly wall to wall sonic goodness. “Conventional Wisdom” has one of the ten best guitar riffs of the decade. I’m not sure what the other nine are but at least two are by the Hold Steady), I was a big fan of Doug Martsch. His Now You Know was the first album I’d heard by anyone in Built to Spill and, if you haven’t heard it, you really need to check it out. As amazing as Martsch is with an electric guitar, Now You Know shows his acoustic chops and has some really excellent songs on it to boot. But I don’t just like Martsch for his guitar pyrotechnics (although the Indie Guitar Mt. Rushmore would certainly feature his mug along side J. Mascis, Tad Kubler, and Nels Cline) or for the fact that he looks eerily like Jim Henson. I like the way Martsch sings and writes – he’s a very contemplative dude and it makes his songs sound like he’s really working some shit out with them. On There Is No Enemy, Built to Spill’s latest and greatest album, there’s plenty to suggest that Martsch has had a lot on his mind lately. On “Oh Yeah,” Martsch uses the entirety of the song’s lyrics to say that God, if he exists, will forgive Doug Martsch for doubting he exists because God will understand how unlikely God’s existence seems. It’s a thought I’ve had myself in the last few years, but I never attached such a badass guitar solo to it. Or to any other thoughts, for that matter.
Martsch is also to be commended for the way in which he builds his songs (ironically, they aren’t built to spill, har har) – true to his contemplative nature, the songs often work their way to gorgeous climaxes (there’s a band name for you, aspiring musicians) from simple, melodic guitar lines. There Is No Enemy is full of great examples, but the one I’ll focus on is “Life’s a Dream,” which has a fairly standard (if uncommonly beautiful) guitar solo that meanders into a nifty bridge of guitar noodles and horns that surge up from nowhere. Everything settles down so Martsch can drop a few of the album’s many great lyrics: “Destiny’s vulgar/ so I might as well resist.” If you change the tempo every so often, rinse, and repeat, you pretty much get the gist of There Is No Enemy. That’s not to say, however, that the album is dull or repetitive. One of Martsch’s many gifts is his ability to make really beautiful music that is never boring. It’s the kind of thing you might describe as “pretty indie” or “pretty rock” if those phrases didn’t conjure up images of sensitive man-children in secondhand sweaters, hunched plaintively over acoustic guitars in coffee houses full of people who are writing up the show on their Live Journal pages in real time. Whatever you call it, There Is No Enemy is a fucking masterpiece, a cheerfully resigned album that might go well with a dark beer, a Kurt Vonnegut novel, and some really shitty fall weather. What other context fits a song like “Nowhere Lullabye,” where Martsch declares “this waste, it shines in every way”?
Even when Built to Spill picks up the pace on There Is No Enemy, Martsch is still a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll Eeyore. On “Good Ol’ Boredom”, an uptempo celebration of those times when “not so bad/ seems so great”, Marstch takes stock of his situation like so: “Nothing hurts and no one’s dying” (I’m going to start using that phrase when I’m feeling just okay about life, but I’m usually a pretty happy guy, so I probably won’t get many opportunities to use it). It’s certainly no “we’ve gotta stay positive”, but whatever positivity exists in Built to Spill’s music is extremely hard won. No, they’re providing a meditative catharsis, something that exists on the flip-side of the sort of relief some of us get from early punk records. Martsch comes off as the kind of guy who doesn’t get pissed off the way the rest of us do – like maybe he gets really quiet when he’s furious. I’m just extrapolating from the music here. If you happen to be Doug Martsch and would like to clarify this and any other issues in an exclusive interview for a blog no one reads, hit me up. I’ll make you a burrito.
Among its many fine moments, There Is No Enemy’s finest is probably “Done,” a nearly seven-minute opus that offers clear evidence that Doug Marstch should be only the second guitarist legally allowed to use a wah-wah pedal (the first being, of course, Jimi Hendrix). The song starts with this nifty, low-end wah-wah lick which carries the song along as Martsch sings, “It’s already done” with some soft harmonies in the background. The song is too long for the radio, too beautiful and fatalistic for a montage on Grey’s Anatomy, and one of the best songs of the year. Like much of There Is No Enemy, “Done” rests soundly on Martsch’s gift for subtlety; regardless of the subject matter, the man seems physically incapable of histrionics. That’s pretty refreshing in the age of My Chemical Romance and Doucheboard Confessional.
I’ve read a couple of reviews that raise up There Is No Enemy by implying it’s some kind of return to form after You In Reverse, but I see the former as a fairly logical extension of the latter, though I have to admit that You in Reverse does have some saggy bits. However, any fan of Built to Spill is going to have room in their hearts for both albums – “Conventional Wisdom,” from You in Reverse, is Built to Spill’s best song and There Is No Enemy is their best album. Every song on it is great and it’s one of those wonderful albums that becomes more rewarding with each listen.