A few years short of a decade ago (!!@#!?), Built to Spill singer Doug Martsch sung, “now we can’t even touch it / afraid it will fall apart” on “Carry the Zero,” one of the highlights of the band’s then-new album, Keep It Like a Secret. Although the rest of the song makes it clear Martsch is talking about the painful breakup of a relationship, the line also perfectly describes the state of the band after Keep it Like a Secret. That album was certainly their most critically acclaimed to date. It was also responsible for widening their fan base exponentially, due to its pop sensibilities, big guitar sound, economical song lengths and unique structure changes that avoided the rut of the simple verse chorus verse. Remember the first time you listened to …Secret’s “Time Trap” and the instrumental tension that built over the first part of the song was released in a slow sauntering reggae beat? Or the way “Temporary Blind,” one of the most low-key songs on the album, explodes in a joyous guitar burst right before it ends? How could Built To Spill possibly replicate moments of sheer brilliance?
I differ from most critics who assailed the band’s answer to this question, 2001’s Ancient Melodies From The Future, and called it a creative retreat from the heights of Keep It Like A Secret. I will agree that the album was not as grand in scope, but this was very much intentional. The songs were consciously smaller and more personal. Whether lashing out in the confrontational, psychedelic, “In My Mind” or cooing gently in the beautiful and near-perfect love song “The Weather,” the album sidestepped the dilemma of what Built to Spill would do after recording a masterpiece. If they could release an album of songs as good as Ancient Melodies…, did it matter that it wasn’t a step forward from …Secret? And then four years passed. And there was no news from Built to Spill, save one brief tour in the summer of 2005 where the band played no new material.
And then, after song teasers, webzine prattle, and a bizarre album leak (involving samples from rapper Mike Jones being placed over each song), You In Reverse, Built to Spill’s follow-up to the follow-up to their masterpiece has been unveiled. And, in all honesty, the album is just not that good. While it is certainly a grower, as I can now get through an entire listen-through with only two or three uses of the “skip” button (usually “Gone,” “Wherever You Go” and “Mess With Time”), it neither contains the sweeping grandiosity of the band’s albums up to and including …Secret, nor the touching simplicity of Ancient Melodies… Here, neither the band’s songwriting nor musicianship shines through. It’s not that many of the songs are bad, but instead that most are straightforward and immensely boring.
While I applaud the band’s decision to return to “epic” style songwriting (save the two minute “Liar,” no other tracks on You in Reverse are less than four and a half minutes long), they simply don’t fill these songs with enough to justify their long lengths. Many of the songs, like those on Ancient Melodies…, fade out at their conclusion, giving them a sort of half-baked, unfinished sound that the band’s earlier catalog lacked. In all honesty, save the opening and closing cuts, there are no melodies that stick with me. I bob my head at the slowcore style of “Saturday,” and then forget its chord progression halfway through the next track.
The band has paid homage to Neil Young successfully on tracks like “Broken Chairs” from …Secret or their gargantuan cover of Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” on their live release. But You In Reverse’s “Wherever You Go” sounds less like a tribute and more like the band scraped the bare bottom of Young’s barrel for a song idea, came up with a derivative riff, and then repeated it, ad-naseum, until the inevitable fadeout. Whether the band is trying new things, like the Pink Floydish ending to “Gone” or recreating ideas they have successfully done before, like reggae syncopation that shows up on the horribly titled “Mess With Time,” the resulting songs often sound like excruciatingly unpracticed live jams, lacking any interesting ebb and flow or progression.
Marstch is still a guitar god, capable of making a solo sound both spontaneous and controlled, but these songs seem to be structured around the solos, not the other way around. Without the guitar solos, most of these songs would probably hover around three minutes in length. And because nearly every song on the album features such a solo, even these moments fail to rouse one from disinterest. Lyrically, the band is weaker than usual, to the point where missteps become obvious. “Some things never change / And nothing is going to change that” from “Conventional Wisdom” sounds rehashed and obvious. And Martsch’s grappling with humanity’s place in the world, a recurring lyrical topic, is given meager treatment like, “Mother Nature’s disposition / She don’t mind, she don’t care” in “Liar.” One other note must be made. While in most album reviews, I strive to mention the rhythm section of a band, here they are so anonymous and unexceptional. You in Reverse sounds like Doug Martsh’s album based upon his vision, not that of a band.
Of course, there are exceptions, songs that not only belong in the Built to Spill cannon, but will become highlights of it. Conveniently, the two tracks on the album that defy the mediocrity of the rest are opener “Goin’ Against Your Mind” and closer “The Wait.” The former is truly a monumental opener, starting out a raging fastly paced rock song, before the drums fade and one is left with just Martch’s mood setting drone over fuzzy guitar noise. The drums come back in and the song leaps over itself, placing solo over solo over solo until the listener is beaten with the most beautiful kind of noise, one that shows the power of Marstch’s guitar work. “The Wait” is an acoustic closer, similar to Ancient Melodies…’s “The Weather,” but while that song really was intended as an acoustic song, “The Wait” isn’t comfortable in it’s own mellow skin, and ends with a spiraling guitar solo. For only the second time on the album, the band sounds in sync and energized, with a commanding drum pattern and spiky rhythm guitar following the song to its close.
It is dangerous when a band takes 4 years of inactivity between releases, not only because fans’ expectations will be all the higher, but also because the possibility to over-think song ideas and themes is present. Looked at in the context of the band’s history, You In Reverse reeks of staleness. These songs sound like good ideas dragged out twice as long as they should be, with lyrics that sound overwrought and lightweight. Without the context of Built to Spill’s back catalog, You In Reverse is simply a meaty rock album that lacks enough highlights to justify its purchase. Save yourself eight bucks, download the first and last tracks from iTunes, and try to pretend the band released a two track EP mere months after Ancient Melodies, and that they can still effortlessly produce such transcendent music. If the band’s former mantra was not being able to touch their sound, for fear it would fall apart, “The Wait” offers a new one; “patience, patience, darling.” Patience, at this point, is what the band must hope its fans posses.