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?