Album Review: Built to Spill, ‘Untethered Moon’
One constant refrain throughout Built to Spill’s more than 20-year career is frontman Doug Martsch’s insistence that his lyrics are byproducts of his subconscious. Their meaning isn’t clear or concrete to him, and as a result, listeners can go on assigning them with significance as they will. Just leave him out of it.
Martsch will even go a step further to downplay his own keen ability to pen a line that resonates; instead he would have you believe, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that he’s just trying to make sure the words don’t combat with the rest of the song. It’s a plausible assertion -- for Martsch and his rotating cast of players, guitar is king. Anything and just about everything else is secondary; in the lyrics' case, a mere afterthought. However, for any listener who’s spent time ruminating over Martsch’s writing for the past seven albums, that can be a tough pill to swallow. The arrival of Untethered Moon -- their first album since 2009’s There Is No Enemy -- is yet another example in Built to Spill’s pristine catalog.
Yes, Martsch's lyrics often deal in otherworldly dreamscapes that can be difficult to pin down (Martsch wants to talk about Mars, the stars and the titular Untethered Moon in “On the Way,” and later, on album closer, “When I’m Blind,” the stars are burning), but they always seem to make their way back down to ground, to a place where it’s difficult not to assign meaning -- whether personally or otherwise. In Untethered Moon’s case, however, it distinctly feels like a commentary on Built to Spill’s unusual position as an indie-rock institution that’s maintained an almost unfathomably consistent tenure for two decades -- on a major label to boot.
It’s hard to ignore when the Boise rockers open their first album in six years with “All Our Songs,” a blistering cut that sure sounds like Martsch in the midst of reflection: “These old songs sound like they’ve been there forever,” he sings, almost underneath his breath. After a signature, unwieldy guitar solo, he picks up: “All night / Listen to the second record / All these songs / Sound like we’re in this together / And I found a place that I know / I’ll always be tethered.”
Untethered Moon seems to be the work of a guy who’s very tethered to his past. Built to Spill are again and again pegged as the reliable mainstays with beloved benchmarks (notably their three consecutive releases between ’94 and ’99, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret). At times -- such as “All Our Songs” and “Never Be the Same” -- Untethered Moon sounds like a rebellion from that past. At others, it sounds like acceptance, as heard on “Some Other Songs”’s contented settling.
Evolutions between albums are relatively minute: thoughtful and dreamy lyrics (whether they mean anything to Martsch or not), Martsch’s instantly recognizable vocal style and, yes, the jagged guitar digressions that lay the noise on thick -- they can all always be counted on. Untethered Moon is no exception. Nevertheless, “reliable” is kind of a misnomer for Built to Spill.
Martsch has spent Built to Spill’s career pulling the rug out from underneath listeners’ feet, whether it’s with an unexpected left turn in the continually wandering song structures or the moment when all of that wandering comes to a head only to leave Martsch’s powerful words exposed and on their own, often jerking fans to attention only to leave them in a quiet solitude, grappling with the singer’s intent.
On the surface, Untethered Moon is a logical and exceptional addition to an impressively consistent catalog. The album finds Martsch recognizing his own place in the strange indie-rock landscape over the past 20 years, but it's also a reminder that this is Built to Spill, who have always and continue to keep listeners on their toes -- even if they don't realize it.