Backtrack: Doug Martsch Now You Know

Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch released one solo album, Now You Know, in 2002. It’s not that different from a Built To Spill record — his soaring vocals are still present, that sort of abstract, knotty lyrical wisdom is still very much in the mix, as is some of the virtuoso guitar playing that is a Built To Spill staple, though in this case it leans acoustic and unadorned. This is, in some sense, Martsch’s personal record. It’s not meant to be a trailblazer, and freed from the pressures of Built To Spill, it’s a lot looser, a lot less focused, and there’s almost no density to it whatsoever.

Of course, straightforward, loose Doug Martsch is still going to be pretty formidable. When I wrote about You In Reverse last week, I assumed — based on general critical consensus — that no one really cared that much about it, but the comments said otherwise. Some people wrote to say that when it came out they felt like it was a return to form, others spoke up in favor of its unfocused nature. I wasn’t expecting any of that. The takeaway was that Martsch can often work best when he’s rambling instead of laser-focused, sounding like he’s giving a really interesting lecture, if that makes sense.

I’ve listened to Built To Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret so many times that the plain truth in those songs is therapeutic, but You In Reverse or Now You Know? I love those records as much for what they don’t give me as what they do.

There aren’t many moments of specificity on Now You Know, it’s mostly Martsch making sweeping gestures — emotions as coded ideas about the world at large — so, on “Impossible,” when he sings “breathing seems like an arrival,” it’s touching for how general and plain it is. Is this a line about turning over a new leaf? About that moment after personal trauma when you figure out that actually things aren’t going to be terrible forever? Toward the end of the song, over a staccato drum roll, Martsch’s melancholy turns into something bordering on anger, and he sings, “and everyone tells you that everyone’s telling you lies, and that story you made up is sounding too much like my lie…” this is classic Martsch. Twisty turns of phrase are tangled up so you have to unravel them in your head, like you’re figuring out your own psychological shit at exactly the same time Martsch is.

The anger on “Impossible” stands out from the rest of Now You Know, which is mostly subdued. You could, if you felt like it, classify this as Martsch’s “adult” record, the one where he strips away the theatrics and cuts right to the core of life. But he’s not giving it to us that easy. “Impossible” features a very Built To Spill-esque guitar solo that fades into the final track, “Stay,” which is two-plus minutes of front-porch slide guitar. In contrast with the full-bodied “Impossible,” “Stay” feels like a home recording. A demo that doesn’t need to be anything more than what it already is.

Maybe this is why Now You Know works as well as it does. Built To Spill are about perfecting a formula. Now You Know is the sound of Martsch opening up just a little bit more, exposing imperfections. He’s not giving us much, but it’s enough.