At the climax of “Car,” a twee power ballad from Built To Spill’s 1994 album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, Doug Martsch passionately whined, “I wanna see movies of my dreams!” Three years later, he helped the rest of us see them, too.
Perfect From Now On, which turns 20 years old this Saturday, is a stunning work of art by any measure, but it’s extra impressive in context. Up until that point, Built To Spill had been an indie-pop band in the K and Up Records universe, kicking out scrappy guitar-pop songs with a cutesy slant and deep melancholy undertones. Their debut album, 1993’s Ultimate Alternative Wavers, was promising yet uneven and inessential. Everything clicked into place on sophomore effort There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, a classic of its genre, on which Martsch’s knack for memorable lyrics was outmatched only by his tightly wound riffs. Packed with punchy, scraggly songs about the life of a shy Idaho dreamer, it’s a great album, but no one would call it grand.
Suffice it to say no one was expecting Built To Spill to follow that up with a prog-pop opus that sprawled across the Rocky Mountain skyline and up into outer space. Sure, they’d become the umpteenth indie band to sign to a major label (Warner Brothers, where they remain affiliated to this day), but they were the same dudes working with the same producer, Phil Ek. This group had always sounded exactly like what they were: some scruffy white dudes from Boise trying to make a living driving a van around the country playing rock shows. On songs like “Big Dipper” and “Twin Falls” Martsch came off small and fragile, dwarfed by an impossibly big and confusing world. And then Perfect From Now On came along and blew up Built To Spill to gargantuan proportions. It was as if Martsch and his bandmates had become superhuman in the interval between albums, demigods capable of sculpting cosmic soundscapes yet unable to escape same old neuroses.
It almost didn’t happen. Perfect From Now On was recorded three separate times: Martsch and Ek rejected the first version, on which Martsch played every instrument but drums. The second version, which featured bandmates Brett Nelson and Scott Plouf, was destroyed by heat in Ek’s car. A lot of bands would have given up at that point, but Built To Spill recorded the songs a third time, and we can all be grateful for their perseverance in the face of adversity. They ended up with a landmark album that only gets better with age, eight essentially flawless tracks that you could make a case for as the greatest indie rock album of the ’90s.
Perhaps recording these songs over and over again helped Marstch, Ek, and company to expand them to such spectral grandiosity, adding new layers with each pass through. Gauzy textures and woozy tempos give way to thunderous convulsions and guitar onslaughts verging on heavy metal. Riffs abound, twisting and cascading across an ever-shifting terrain that creates the sense of a universe constantly in flux. The songs are rooted in indie rock’s basic ingredients of guitars, bass, and drums, and they often chug along like the Built To Spill of old, as on the punchy second half of “Stop The Show” or the alternately lackadaisical and roaring “Out Of Site.” Yet thanks to their segmented construction and expansive arrangements, they each have the feel of a spaceship floating through the galaxy and beholding its glory — like Neil Young epics blasted to Pink Floyd planetarium scope.
Beyond the cellos and keyboards and whatnot, that pondering-the-heavens motif partly stems from Martsch’s lyrics. On Perfect From Now On he deals explicitly with subject matter like God, morality, and the nature of the universe, from the opening imagery of endlessly swiping a feather at “this metal sphere 10 times the size of Jupiter” on “Randy Described Eternity” to the album-closing proclamation that “God is whoever you’re performing for.” There are explorations of his own evil on “I Would Hurt A Fly” and visions of the solar system going dark on “Kicked It In The Sun,” all intermingled with the self-effacing wordplay that marked the Built To Spill of old (“We’re special in other ways, ways our mothers appreciate” is a Martsch all-timer). Perhaps pushed to his limits by the challenge of new fatherhood, here he both burrowed deep inside his psyche and gazed out into infinity. “It takes a lot to make me crazy,” he sings on “Made-Up Dreams,” the album’s spectacular centerpiece, “and a lot is always going on.”
The sum of these efforts is an album so singular that few bands have even attempted to replicate it (though a small handful, like Cymbals Eat Guitars, have tried valiantly). Even Built To Spill themselves never made an LP quite like this again, and I’m not sure they could have if they tried. It’s almost universally regarded as the band’s masterwork, the one All Tomorrow’s Parties sent them on tour to play in full — and although sometimes in my life I have preferred the follow-up, Keep It Like A Secret, the older Perfect From Now On gets, the more genuinely perfect it seems. As I age along with this music, I am increasingly grateful that Martsch followed his own advice: “No one wants to hear what you dreamt about/ Unless you dreamt about them/ Don’t let that stop you/ Tell them anyway, and you can make it up as you go.”