Stop Making Sense

Built To Spill writes soaring guitar symphonies for the fallen rock faithful

Don't get me wrong: Even if Keep it Like a Secret is already being heralded as a masterpiece of guitar excess emboldened by emotional egress, Martsch is no rock hero. Unless you count "guitar hero," which, from a look at the Billboard charts, doesn't count for much. At first sight, the private Idaho he shares with Plouf, Nelson, his wife, Karena, and 5-year-old daughter is very much his own. Martsch is too humble for post-grunge angst (he ditched that scene after his first band, Seattle's Treepeople, split), too earnest for slacker pop-pastiche (though his guitar jags reference quite a bit), and too engaged for Elliott Smith's softy solipsism.

At his best he is a hesitant inheritor of great Reagan-era quest-punks like the Minutemen's D. Boon and the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood. I think of the Puppets singing "lost on the freeway again...I'm getting' tired of living Nixon's mess, lost on the freeway again," with stoned bemusement at their own detachment. Then I think of Boon turning those lines into Molotov cocktails.

Though Martsch struggles to find his forebears' oppositional angst, he doesn't even know whose mess he's supposed to detest. (Opposition was easier back when every tomorrow was Morning in America; in Clinton's country the politics of disgust are so complex you almost need a research grant to figure out whom to shoot first.) Looking out his window on "Center of the Universe," he becomes physically sick. "I don't like this air," he cries before shirking off any agency over the matter: "But that doesn't mean I'll stop breathing it." Looking in his neighbors' windows he sees a reflection of himself "watching the TV/Hating what you see/Waiting for someone to say something that's right." Then he becomes sicker, mainly because he suspects that he wouldn't know "right" from a truncheon in the kidneys. A few years back, Martsch and bassist Nelson's band Caustic Resin recorded a wonderfully painful hand-wringer called "When Not Being Stupid Is Not Good Enough." It's like that.

Martsch's awareness never really goes beyond amazement at his own dislocation from a society that can hardly replicate the safety and community of his chosen subculture: For him, driving to Portland to see scene-brethren Modest Mouse is a political act. And while his bohemian integrity is endearing, it's also a bit of a cop-out. So it makes sense that when he strives for connection, he often ends up grasping at apparitions: "You've become/A fraction of the sun," he sings to one of the album's vague characters--a friend in need or an addict, perhaps. Likewise, the unnamed foil in many of these songs--the dubious "You" to Doug's empathetic "I"--is never made knowable before Martsch's guitar gets its wings and he's forced to follow it into the ether.

The exception is the anthem his advocates at big, bad Warner Bros. Records might herald after Secret moves only 60,000 units and the boys on the board veto a contract renewal. On "You Were Right," Martsch pins down his melody and never lets it go, dragging us through a series of the lamest classic-rock clichés imaginable. "You were right when you said all we are is dust in the were right when you said all that glitters isn't gold," he sings with melodramatic sincerity. The sentiments have never sounded weaker, dumber.

There are a lot of ways you can interpret Martsch's reading: It's stoner satire; it's a lazy set of dummy lyrics that never were replaced with real ones; it's a spoiled child throwing away his inheritance, broken toy by broken toy. It's pop eating itself the way pop always eats itself, as if the last record of the guitar era is going to swallow every cynical classic-rock lie that came before it. Here we know who our enemies are, and this is where Doug Martsch lives up to his lineage. "Do!/You!/Ever think about it!?" he demands as the guitar mass starts mushrooming over the horizon.

The members of Kansas were not available for comment.

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