Like a plaid message from the Pacific Northwest circa 1994, Built to Spill’s There Is No Enemy greets its listeners as a nostalgic reminder of an era when "alternative" was still a burgeoning genre. As though wearing blinders, Doug Martsch and his mates have moved on steadfastly, exploring little outside of their catchy, heavy, guitar-driven sound and contemplative lyrics. The venerable Built to Spill’s lack of change is almost admirable in that they continually find ways to make the same elements sound new. There Is No Enemy is no different.
Never one for the spotlight, Martsch seemed grateful for fan attention during the You in Reverse tour of 2006. After the wrong turn of 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future, the members had re-found their groove with You in Reverse, a return to the confidence and energy of 1999’s Keep it Like a Secret. During the tour, Martsch was out at the merch table, signing post-show autographs with a smile. It had been the band's first release in five years, and the possibility of disconnection of sorts had likely crept into his mind. Bands attempt to reinvent themselves to stay fresh, sometimes disenfranchising fans in the pursuit. But Built to Spill has benefited from a resistance to change.
There Is No Enemy is more musically upbeat than its predecessor. You In Reverse meandered through angular hooks with energy occasionally popping up on "Conventional Wisdom" and "Goin' Against Your Mind." Martsch's voice is incapable of expressing much excitement -- he's admitted to having little confidence in his singing chops -- and in the past the music has done the work on the songs. Here, however, he sings playfully on "Aisle 13," dreaming of finding his friend covered with ants due to her sweetness, and even exudes a bit of expletive-infused confidence on the harder "Pat." "Life's a Dream" even features assistance from "ohh-la-las" and horns.
Where Martsch still sings of quotidian troubles and mysteries, the outlook has changed, from “this is messed up” to “this is messed up, but let’s move on because things are going to be all right.” Rather than deriding the feeling, he lauds it atop majestic strings in "Good Ol' Boredom": "Break out the water/ It's time to celebrate/ Welcome back good ol' boredom." On “Nowhere Lullaby,” Martsch may be singing of things close to home: “Fifteen years fly by/ Still here and you don’t know why/ Has it been that long?/ Is the time, the table gone?/ Hope its longer than that now/ We forget we don’t know how/ Everyone gets feeling down/ Everybody understands/ We’re all doing what we can.” They're old and wise.
The first two songs -- "Aisle 13" and "Hindsight" -- are the most playful here, and they are some of the best work since Keep It Like a Secret. There Is No Enemy does not offer new horizons for Built to Spill, but it does shine in a consistently good catalog. Built to Spill once represented something new, but they have their followers, and have really done little in the way of gaining new listeners. However, There Is No Enemy shows that a band doesn't have to consistently break new ground to remain relevant.
It will no doubt depress many older critics to realize that those who were born when Built to Spill was forming are about to head to college. Very few bands have that kind of shelf life, and Built to Spill may be the first post-Nirvana bands to achieve elder statesman status in indie rock. Of course, calling Built to Spill "indie" is rather dubious, as the band has been on Warner Bros. for over a decade.
There is No Enemy, Built to Spill's first album since 2006's You In Reverse, has been pitched as possibly the last album Built to Spill produces. As Doug Marsh and his bandmates enter middle age, the rock lifestyle is proving to be draining even for consistent bands. Still, Built to Spill is launching an exhaustive fall tour to support There Is No Enemy, fresh off headlining the Write the Night portion of Pitchfork Fest.
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