Doug Martsch, frontman of venerable rock stalwart Built to Spill and one third of indie rock’s Holy Bearded Trinity — Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, aka Will Oldham, complete the triumvirate — seems impervious to change. But it’s not like he needs to embrace it. With every release of a Built to Spill album comes some automatic good news — namely, that it will sound just like every other Built to Spill album. Again, this is good news.
Built to Spill
There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill’s brand of rock is similar to our nation’s other top brand names in that it’s both consistent and consistently satisfying. Like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s fries and Bud Light, Built to Spill’s releases combine a warm-blanket sense of familiarity with that initial, refreshing taste that immediately affirms why they’re so well-loved. The band knows this — take a look at past albums’ opening tracks: Perfect From Now On’s “Randy Described Eternity, Keep It Like a Secret’s “The Plan,” You In Reverse’s “Goin’ Against Your Mind.” Those are some of the finest first sips in any indie-rock band’s catalog.
But enough with the beverage metaphors. There Is No Enemy is Built to Spill’s most recent album and only the third proper one the band has released in the new millennium. Like every new Built to Spill album since Perfect From Now On, it differs from its predecessors only by slight degrees.
For one, there are fewer — but not many fewer (see the seven-minute “Done”) — spacey, solo-riddled jams that push songs past the six- or seven-minute mark. For two, Martsch abandons You In Reverse’s and Perfect From Now On’s emphasis on guitar- and riff-based songs for a more holistic, full-band approach. But again, there are still some killer, song-making guitar lines (especially noteworthy are the spiky, punky stadium-ready rockers “Pat” and “Planting Seeds”).
Martsch, as usual, tackles weighty topics and asks some big questions. On “Oh Yeah,” the album’s jammiest and most melancholic track, he apparently sums up his theology in totality: “And if god does exist / I am sure he will forgive me / for doubting, for he’d see / how unlikely he made himself seem.” Martsch’s delivery, along with the song’s loose structure and weeping solos, reveal just how unsure he really is about his beliefs. A sweet contradiction, it all makes for some very moving, very poignant tension.
Continuing his reign as indie rock’s resident philosopher, Martsch spends a great deal of There is No Enemy struggling with life, death and the nature of the mind. On finale “Tomorrow,” Martsch flips the notion of a good, productive life on its head: “The more you have to live for / the more you love your life / the harder it will be for you to die / and we all want living and dying easy.”
He questions the reliability of memory on “Hindsight,” one of the album’s highlights. In that trademark high-register, nasally voice, he complains, “Hindsight’s given me / too much memory / There’s too much never seen,” and further considers: “The tricks that are played with human brains.” And if all this isn’t enough to get your inner Nietzsche fired up, Martsch then asks one of humankind’s most burning, universal questions: “What about Canada?” If only we had an answer …
Since all Built to Spill albums have similar themes, sounds, production, etc., it comes down to the relative strength of individual songs to determine whether the record is a success or not. That being said, There is No Enemy doesn’t have any clear standouts like “Conventional Wisdom” or “Randy Described Eternity” on albums past. But it is remarkably solid from top to bottom, with enough depth and nuance to sustain the high standard of quality on which Built to Spill’s career has been predicated. Is it among the best of the band’s albums? I think not. But it’s enough of a success to ensure that the Built to Spill brand name lives on. And live on it does.