All Built To Spill songs exist on a continuum between two poles: snappy, twee-inflected pop songs and vast, mind-altering classic rock soundscapes. I’ve never been to Idaho, but I can’t help wondering if this reflects the topography there, the concrete quadrants of a busy Boise business district giving way to resplendent unmarred mountain ranges and infinite sky.
You can spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts in a place like that, and Doug Martsch undoubtedly does. Built To Spill lyrics tend to map the former Treepeople frontman’s inner monologue, from cynical waking-life reflections to longing glimpses into dreams. (So many dreams! I sometimes get the sense that, given the chance to exist forever in subconscious limbo like Marion Cotillard in Inception, Martsch would do it in an instant.) It’s easy to imagine him muttering many of his lyrics under his breath. Whether dealing in transcendental imagery or detail-rich true-life frustrations, he contributed some of his genre’s most evocative and affecting turns of phrase, from “In America, every puddle a gasoline rainbow” to “Thought it was an alien/ Turned out to be just God.” Even the ostensibly comedic lines (“My stepfather looks just like David Bowie/ But he hates David Bowie”) are contagiously thoughtful.
But Martsch is best known for his guitar work, and rightfully so; a nasal whine wasn’t all he inherited from Neil Young. Whether couched in low-budget crackle or gleaming crystalline sighs, Built To Spill’s six-string theatrics have always been astonishing. With the help of his rotating crew of old friends and collaborators — it’s hard to keep track when one guy is named Brett Nelson and another is Brett Netson, and both have been through the revolving door a couple times — Martsch dispelled the notions that (a) indie rock is only for those without chops and (b) guitar solos are only for the Sam Ash soul patch set. Pavement and Guided By Voices were closer to the platonic ideal of a ’90s indie band, but at the height of their powers, Built To Spill became what Television was for the ’70s and Dinosaur Jr. was for the ’80s: the surest pathway from a classic rock record collection to a vast world of eccentric underground sound.
As Martsch and his cohorts mellowed out and aged out of fashion, Built To Spill slowed down to the point that it wasn’t surprising when news of a hiatus broke last month. Nor was it all that shocking to read about Martsch suffering from a depressing case of writer’s block; Built To Spill’s second decade found him more or less wringing his muse dry, returning to music only when he got bored of basketball. Regarding a scrapped attempt at a new album, Martsch told Pitchfork, “The songs were pretty good and I thought those guys did a great job, but I had zero eureka moments. I had no just even happy moments. I was a little bit worried about myself — it’s harder getting older, thinking maybe I’ve run my course. I was happy to bag that record.”
If Built To Spill has indeed come to a close, they leave behind a marvelous body of work. It began in in earnest 20 years ago today with the release of the debut album Ultimate Alternative Wavers. What followed wasn’t prolific by Bob Pollard standards or even Stephen Malkmus standards, but Martsch’s output these last two decades has been generous enough to produce six more studio LPs plus numerous essential full-lengths that are impossible to compare: the early singles collection The Normal Years; Martsch’s acoustic-heavy solo album Now You Know; the concert album Live. No matter how you like them apples, they aren’t congruent with these oranges. Thus, here are Built To Spill’s seven studio albums ranked, recounted and (mostly) revered.
Start the Countdown here.