Built to Spill spent the first decade of the new millennium stretching out. It took them three years to transform from a band that could only play a handful of songs immediately following the release of their 1997 masterwork Perfect From Now On to one that was jamming tracks out to the 20-minute mark on 2000’s Live. After releasing the occasionally brilliant but scattered Ancient Melodies of the Future in 2001, they toured reliably but didn’t release another album until 2006’s sprawling You in Reverse. That album saw the official lineup solidify at five members (three guitars, drums, and bass), and was also occasionally brilliant but markedly dark and meandering, lacking the ear-catching overdubs that made their previous recordings so exhilarating. With somewhat lowered expectations, There Is No Enemy arrives on the scene just as the decade closes and proves that Doug Martsch still has plenty of gas left in the tank as a songwriter and album crafter, and that the Built to Spill sound never gets boring when executed with care.
It seems trite to say that this album is a great mix of all of their past albums, but that’s the exact truth. There are colorful jaunty numbers (“Aisle 13”, “Planting Seeds”), wistful, bittersweet pop (“Hindsight”), yearning dirges to false realities (“Life’s a Dream”, “Oh Yeah”), midtempo chuggers (“Done”, “Tomorrow”), and even a Treepeople-styled speedy punk-inspired rant (“Pat”). Instead of shooting exclusively either for a full band democracy or an evil-genius songwriting dictatorship, each song exists as a song first, and then after establishing a reason to exist, make room for a full band dynamic. “Good Ol’ Boredom”, a new career highlight and a paean to life’s uncomplicated moments from someone recently experiencing complications, struts along as a head-bobbing pop song until it’s made its point, at which time it digresses into a textural flinging of guitar heads, comes back for one more verse, and then plays itself out in dueling three-guitar grandeur. “Aisle 13”, which the band had been playing live as an extended outro to “Center of the Universe”, shares that song’s kaleidoscopic punchiness while riffing on a similar lyrical theme about the self fooling itself. “Things Fall Apart” takes the dysphoric jams they’ve been keen on lately and injects a good dose of vulnerability, giving the whole affair a good deal of depth.
It should also be pointed out that this album has a lot of heart. Treading in the same off-beat psycho-philosophical territory he’s always excelled at, Martsch keeps delivering the goods on the human condition from slightly different angles. These songs are filled with wonderings about the loss of things never gained, illusions propagated by the mind on the mind for the mind, the normalcy of depression, what makes life meaningful, what makes the thought of dying hard, and the mental confusion that comes with an understanding of all of these things. In the end, he usually falls back on the innocence of insignificance, and in turn, the significance of the simple chosen path, taking comfort in the romance of the pure odds against individuals coming together in this large universe. He even dips back into the doe-eyed sweetness of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love from time to time, expecting his sweetheart to be “covered in ants, cuz you’re so sweet”.
For fans like me who have been put off by the group’s recorded output since Keep It Like a Secret, this is no time to give up on these guys. The highs here, while admittedly not quite as majestic or sugary as in the past, are still pretty far up there, and better yet, there are no lows. No band has been able to take what Built to Spill do and improve on it, or even produce a decent copy. For that reason, we shouldn’t take the band for granted, but instead we should be thankful that Built to Spill is still great at being Built to Spill.