Stop Making Sense

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

Bury the ax, brothers. The last 15 years of guitar rock--from the revolutionary grrrl-stylings of Sleater-Kinney to the oceanic rumble of My Bloody Valentine--have sounded a funeral knell for a classic-rock hegemony I will refer to here as The Cult of Balls. "Balls," you may remember, were those talismans of power our right-thinking elder siblings dangled before us every time they slipped Led Zeppelin IV into their dashboard tape decks in order to reveal the holy majesty of preening bombast.

Theirs was a noble mission: an invitation to an initiation rite in which keening, impressionable youth were saved from soft, "pussy" Top 40 pop. As one tribal elder explained it as his '82 Camaro hurled us down I-35E, I was being called upon to a enter a sacred temple where my wee "virgin ears" were to be "opened up" to the throbbing pumping pounding slobbering power of "real" "rock 'n' roll."

I think he proceeded to play me "When the Levee Breaks." Which, now that I think about it, was a pretty damn oceanic record, downright yonic, in fact. The vitriolic simper of the blues slide into a ring of contractions--a perfect metaphor for the contradictory nature of hard-rock chauvinism. I bring all this up because lately I've been listening to something that might be mistaken for a balls record, Built To Spill's sixth album, Keep it Like a Secret. This is the apogee of the decade-long career of guitar genius Doug Martsch, an indie-rock lifer whose music has as much to do with the '70s excesses of Led Zep as it does the amateurish kiddie-pop he makes with K Records mogul Calvin Johnson in the tinny Halo Benders. Split between these poles, Martsch sounds constantly conflicted. His guitar zigs when you want it to zag. It whines and he whines with it--usually when you pray he'd start shouting. His elongated solos and prodigious dexterity might offer rock believers a late-'90s antidote to the electronica that one critic-friend described as "emasculated guitar-rock"--if only they didn't seem to castrate themselves at the moment of their greatest potency.

Doug Martsch is the most spectacular guitar player in rock, and Keep it Like a Secret is the best giant guitar album since My Bloody Valentine's 1991 grail, Loveless. An often mesmerizing, at times harrowing, album, Secret follows an ideology few critical arbiters of cant do much canting for these days: the call of the lone male and his six-string phallic extension; the struggle to become what you are. It's as if everything since Odelay never happened, and for a certain, admittedly dwindling, demographic (BTS's last record, 1997's epic Perfect From Now On, sold 43,000 copies), it will be the grace note of their dreams.

Secret's secret is that it skillfully blurs Martsch's conflicting impulses: balls vs. brains, classic rock vs. indie pop, amping up vs. spacing out, heroic passion vs. muddled intentions, truth vs. beauty(!), soaring vs. stumbling, musical solitude vs. collaborative community. And it's the last of these that interests me most. Spill's detractors--people who find the noise Martsch makes with bassist Brett Nelson and former Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf the stuff of slacker indulgence--will miss the fact that this record is a mess because everythingis a mess. Because the search for direction in a fragmented society laced together only by a crisis of meaning will always leave you so confused you don't know which words to use. My favorite Doug Martsch lyric goes "I want you to do me what to show." It's like that.

 

Secret opens with the "The Plan," a ranging, ringing statement of purpose in which Martsch passionately demands across-the-board commitment from, well, that's hard to say. The guy loves vagaries, the open-ended accusation, the marginalia scrawled in the letter you never send. "The plaaaan keeps coming up again," he sings to an unspecified person against a backdrop of skyscraping guitar. It might be his wife. It might be his roofer. But Douglas is very frustrated. "The plan means nothing stays the same/But the plan won't accomplish anything, if it's not implemented." The Plan, too, is left unspecified. As has been the case with many Built To Spill songs, Martsch's guitar lights out for territories too spacious and beautiful for words. It noodles like the Meat Puppets, grunges like Neil Young, coils and hisses like Dinosaur Jr., iterates like Television, weaves like the Feelies. It masturbates itself to sleep and then careens like a dream through the astral plane.

What's at stake here is what has been at stake in Built To Spill's music since the band arrived in 1992: dealing. Martsch can not deal; anyone familiar with his increasingly famous guitarscapes and vocal whine will tell you that. Yet where 1994's indie-scene hit There's Nothing Wrong With Love was a tad too cloying and the impossible, sprawling Perfect read like an indie-rock Finnegan's Wake, Secret's blithe songs and tight melodies provide the perfect womb for lyrics that have become more expressive with each outing.

Martsch is a master of tension-release-tension-explosion guitar dynamics. And while his song structures are too purposefully multipartite for his own good, he's no Scrooge when it comes time to dole out the requisite hooks (even if he makes you work for your Christmas goose). The pop bash "Sidewalk" is unremittingly peppy; the glowing "Else" is cool and reassuring, even as it assays love's venom. And the anthems "You Were Right" and "Temporarily Blind" are so impassioned as to almost be heard as political.

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 wind...you 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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