At first blush, there’s something surprisingly direct about the latest Built to Spill album. It includes a song called “C.R.E.B.”, an acronym that stands for “cAMP response element-binding protein” — a cellular transcription factor, a microscopic building block of human life that’s essential to the formation of memory and neuroplasticity. While frontman Doug Martsch has always been concerned with the essential elements of human existence, it’s strange to see him dig straight into the physical brain rather than the worlds it builds, explores, and remembers. Maybe it was just an excuse to use the word “hippocampus” in a noir groove. Though it’s Built to Spill’s first album since 2009’s There Is No Enemy and it features a new lineup, Untethered Moon sits right at the band’s musical sweet spot: tight webs of guitar, knotty at places and dangling in the breeze elsewhere. But that reduction to the physical belies the melancholic streak in Martsch’s evocative phrases.
“C.R.E.B.” opens on a shadowy guitar riff — a candidate for a James Bond theme if someone indie like Jason Schwartzman took the role — but it’s Martsch’s cynicism that plunges fully into the darkness. “Yeah, God don’t know/ Believe me, I believe that’s true,” he opens, before unreeling lines about failures of memory and the absence of a loved one. “I never wanna forget you,” he begs, rather than blaming the other person for not being there or himself for the distance. It’s that faulty hippocampus that’s to blame — a bleak look at a world where everything, every memory, every moment will crumble away one day because of the physical facts of our bodies.
Martsch has always relied on terse, meaningful phrases to tell large, emotional stories rather than detail a narrative himself. On the churning “So”, he throws out vague questions and lines that again detail a personal loss. But the world, yet again, isn’t set up to pity or apologize for that kind of thing: “Someone, somewhere, somehow said ‘so,'” he sings in that nasal sigh. Closing song “When I’m Blind” similarly finds everything falling apart: “Stars fall down, burn the ground, they don’t make a sound,” he spits before repeating “I got lost” six times.
Though the lyrics on Untethered Moon hang heavy, guitars will always be the vibrant, buoyant core of Built to Spill. The beautiful, breezy “Horizon to Cliff” drifts into sweet ballad territory, but even that can’t stop Martsch and co. from lifting higher into the swells with two consecutive guitar solos. There’s a Western gallop to “When I’m Blind” that plays off of its apocalyptic lyrics, cracking open in a six-minute guitar explosion after two minutes of dark groundwork.
Lead single “Living Zoo” does the heavy lifting of incorporating the visceral philosophy of the album, as well as showing off the band’s instrumental prowess. Like Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel that traps its characters in an alien zoo, Martsch takes on a sort of bemused chuckle at humanity’s pretensions (“Being a human/ Being an animal, too”) and suffers alongside every pain (“Somehow we get over it/ And we go on”). And, after comparing our lives to lions and tigers in cages, Martsch twists his instrument until it sounds like a big cat’s howl. Beyond that cheeky twitch, the guitars range from R.E.M. jangle (a comparison especially fitting considering Martsch’s high-end self-harmonizing) to Dinosaur Jr. crackle.
In a recent interview with American Songwriter, Martsch explained his stance on the meanings of his lyrics: “A lot already don’t have any meaning, or the meanings they do have are often more subconscious connections than actual meanings … If I could get out of the lyrics game I would.” While his songs would have an emotional depth without his lyrics and his guitar skill would still be legendary enough to draw listeners, his lyrics capture moments that resonate to the core. All of our particles eventually separate, our CREBs and hippocampi will fail, and we may be stuck in cages, but “All Our Songs” offers respite (of course, after a burnt solo): “And I knew/ When I woke up/ Rock and roll will be here forever.” After another excellent record of big hooks and guitar wizardry, there shouldn’t be much doubt.
Essential Tracks: “Living Zoo”, “So”, and “C.R.E.B.”