Built To Spill - You In Reverse

The strangest musical moment of my adult life came when I discovered that a lot of my friends were jam band people. It’s not like they kept it a secret, but they didn’t really make a point of talking about it either.

Looking back, it made a lot of sense. Living in a post-freak-folk world, we’d already absorbed Devendra Banhart, Michael Gira’s baritone folk period, Joanna Newsom’s harp epics that didn’t sound fusty, Will Oldham’s bizarre consistency, we hadn’t yet lost Jason Molina, voice of our dark times, Woods made beautiful songs from Sebadoh-esque cutups and plaintive, hushed folk that eventually bloomed into a perpetual, super tight re-imagining of Live/Dead. It was only a matter of time before Phish would somehow reveal themselves to me as the root of why so many people I knew really cared about all that weird stuff.

The tipoff probably should have come earlier for me than whenever it did. I don’t remember when it was, but I know it should have come around the time I realized that everyone around me really, really loved Built To Spill.

I’d personally always loved the band, but it wasn’t until they were brought up in the same breath as jam bands I really didn’t like listening to that I grew to love Built To Spill even more. Suddenly these songs that I initially thought of as tightly wound rock music with incredible pop sensibility unfurled and relaxed.

Singer/guitarist Doug Martsch is never bigger than his songs, which, lyrically, are all small moments that are buried inside heavy ideas. My favorite lyric from You In Reverse, their 2006 album that could probably use some critical re-evaluation, comes in the first song, which is over eight minutes long. Martsch sings, “When I was a kid I saw a light/ floating high above the trees one night/ thought it was an alien/ turned out to be just god” over a slippery guitar line. It’s a quiet scene that manages to evoke youthful curiosity, summer twilight and a complicated, budding relationship to religion. It’s also a weirdly lonely passage, listening to it, it’s hard not to imagine a geeky Martsch scanning the horizon for UFOs all by himself.

If you’re already a Built To Spill fan, you’re probably wondering why I’m writing about You in Reverse and not, say, Keep It Like A Secret, which is a superior album. It’s more focused, the hooks are hookier, the lyrics more poignant. It is generally less of a mess. But the messiness of You in Reverse is why it works, because as deep as Martsch can get, he’s still never really giving us all that much. We don’t ever really know what he’s talking about. Which is not to say that his music doesn’t have healing power, that it isn’t often redemptive or wise or kind, or even seething with righteous anger (Perfect From Now On’s “Out Of Site” is a pinnacle of frustration in rock music), it’s just that it never really feels like he’s making music for us, so much as he’s doing it for himself and his friends and the people that occupy his world. It’s what allows for wild misreadings of his songs (they work better that way), and when he does get specific, like on There Is No Enemy’s “Pat,” which is a furious, brief song about the loss of a friend, it’s emotionally stunning, uniquely powerful and real.

You In Reverse is not the most focused Built To Spill album, but it often feels like the most honest, probably because of its messiness. For every stunner like “Goin’ Against Your Mind” or “Wherever You Go,” there’s the formless noodling of “Just a Habit” or “The Wait,” which is good in its own right, but sometimes feels like a shadow of Keep It Like A Secret. These looser moments play against the focused songs so well, though. By the time You in Reverse came out, Built To Spill were firmly a career band. It’s easy to imagine a loss of purpose somewhere in there, but buried under that loss is a gem of an album about expectations and the sometimes bland realities of truth. It’s what happens when the excitement, but maybe not the love, of making music is gone. Or not gone, but mutated. It’s not dissimilar from the transition Modest Mouse made from The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica to the somewhat bland Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Getting older is a reality, it’s what you do with it that’s important. On the bright moments of You In Reverse Martsch feels like he is perpetually re-evaluating his entire life for the sake of his art.

But even when Martsch sings like he doesn’t have any answers, it’s pretty clear that writing his songs allows him to find them. In turn, listening to Built To Spill, even at their most uncertain, always made me feel like I was becoming a better person, or at least learning to understand human nature better.

So why You In Reverse? I can’t answer that because I don’t know why. I listen to all the Built To Spill records often, but I listen to You In Reverse the most, and like the best bands, I guess it’s just circumstantial. Martsch writes simple statements in vague ways, it’s not too hard to just project your own nostalgic bullshit (I say that with love) onto them. When I listen to You In Reverse, I think of the fall I spent a lot of time driving around upstate in that crisp light that’s so perfect it seems fake. I also saw Built To Spill play at Music Hall Of Williamsburg during that time. I hadn’t seen them play in years. Martsch barely spoke between songs and was wearing sweatpants, which initially seemed sort of funny, but the more I thought about it, I wondered, why wouldn’t he want to be comfortable?

Comments (13)
  1. You In Reverse is probably my least favorite B2S album, but as they are potentially my favorite band of all time, I still listen to it regularly. Perhaps my favorite thing about Doug Martsch is that everybody has a different group of songs of his that they consider their favorites – the man is prolific as all fuck.

  2. “You in Reverse” is my favorite BTS record after “Perfect From Now On,” and I never understood why it wasn’t more celebrated by critics and fans alike. It may be their most erratic album, but each song is either very good or great, and I think the jumps in tone and style end up making it an incredibly interesting listen (as opposed to their next album, “There is no Enemy,” which was good but was almost too consistent from front to back).

  3. Am I the only one who’s a sucker for this art? Its so anonymous, like it was made with the express intent of being buried in a bargain bin then rediscovered years later. To me that remains one of the great joyous moments in music discovery when the average looking album you bought on a whim for 6 bucks turns out to be wonderful.

    • Excellent point. Actually, every Built To Spill album features “bargain bin” art. I have no idea if this was intentional or not, but the collage stuff on Keep It Like A Secret just screams 99 cent bin in the best way possible.

  4. i’m a big yir supporter. it’s in my top three with ultimate alternative wavers and perfect from now on. it’s a loose and very fun album. it also feels more like a band effort than the usual dug show. it’s the two albums that bookend this one (ancient melodies and there is no enemy) that don’t do it for me.

  5. I guess I have to say that KILAS is my favorite BTS album, but I listen to YIR more often… I love it. I also like AMOTF, too, which most people do not like.

    I have seen them play three times and my favorite moments are always from songs off of YIR.

    There is not a bad song on this album. In fact, “Goin’ Against Your Mind” and “The Wait” are two of my favorite songs of all time.

    Doug never seems like that nice of a guy. He seems bitter and pissed off all the time, but I can’t help but like him. Brett Netson seems kind of like an asshole, too. Nelson, on the other hand seems really cool. Not sure why I get those vibes, but whatever…

  6. You In Reverse is probably the most underrated BTS album, and one I go back to a lot. It probably doesn’t help that it features two of their least interesting cuts (Saturday and Wherever You Are) back-to-back but there’s a lot of real gold here too. Goin’ Against Your Mind is top-10, if not top-5 BTS, Gone is them at their Neil Young-enthused best and Just A Habit, just like You Are from AMOTF, does so much with seemingly so little. Then there’s Mess With Time, surely one of their most overlooked songs, which twists and turns just as well as the best BTS material,

  7. Am I the only one who loves “Liar”?

  8. Awesome album that should get more attention. Probably my most anticipated BTS album because of the songs that were making their way into their live shows for the couple of years leading up to it. And the tour after it came out had to have been some of their best shows ever. Gone is easily in my top 5 BTS songs. If any of it seems angry or frustrated, remember this came out during the Bush war years and they made no bones about their feelings with the government (also see “They Got Away”) without getting too political. Doug never shies away from reality and is one of the most sincere songwriters alive.

  9. My favorite album of theirs…

  10. This is a fantastic album – I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. I love how Conventional Wisdom comes in and reaffirms Doug as a master of melody, then Mess with Time later ratchets up the intensity. Great sequencing. Not a weak track, really. Just great stuff.

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