• Clayton Hauck
  • Built to Spill at the 2009 Pitchork Music Festival

Like Mission of Burma’s The Sound, the Speed, the Light, the Feelies’ Here Before, and a good many records by Neil Young (who might well have invented this particular subgenre), the recently released new Built to Spill album, Untethered Moon, is the sort of guitar-driven rock record that feels like catching up with an old friend. The solos are satisfying both technically and emotionally, despite not breaking any new ground. Doug Martsch has no axe to grind here, nothing to prove. He’s long been able to play guitar as though speaking through it, and when he’s soloing he often speaks eloquently—his expansive sound has the effect of recasting his modest lyrics on a cosmic scale. This gift allows him, on Untethered Moon, to make surprisingly nourishing food for thought from such basic poetic ingredients as aging, immortality, and emotional pain.

The Will Rogers of indie rock, Martsch excels in understated, aw-shucks observations that render big ideas palpable. (His quintessential lyric sheet might be “Randy Described Eternity,” from the 1997 LP Perfect From Now On, which is about just that.) “Living Zoo,” the second track on the new album, is classic Martsch, describing Darwinian evolution in terms of everyday emotional distress. “We’re doing fine [but] / They say there’s a part of us we can’t explain . . . Being a human / Being an animal too,” Martsch sings forthrightly, as if ceding that this is just the state of things. These words give way to one of those echo-heavy guitar solos that sounds like it was recorded in the middle of an open field. Taken together, the music and words invoke our mysterious shared origins and the longing we sometimes feel for some experience not shaped by human convention.

I can describe this powerful interplay only vaguely, which is one reason I’m glad not to be a music critic. But speaking for my own experience, what I get from the solo on “Living Zoo” is a sense of wonder. Ironically, I find that wonder to be heightened by the lackadaisical vibe of Untethered Moon. Martsch’s voice, the band’s casual dynamic, and song titles like “Some Other Song,” “Another Day,” and “So” all create the impression that the album just fell together (even that couldn’t possibly be true, given the band’s ability to transition flawlessly between drastically different sections of the same song). When Built to Spill creates some sublime moment, it’s as though they stumbled onto it and they’re just as astonished as the listener.

I find this sort of ingenuousness lacking in most recent Hollywood blockbusters, which also aspire to create a sense of wonder. In Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series, Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, numerous DreamWorks animations, and nearly every Marvel Studios release I’ve seen, the filmmakers present the audience with special effects from the very first scene—effects that are both intricate and large-scale. There’s rarely any sense of intimacy to throw the spectacle into relief, and so nothing feels stumbled upon. Of all the movies to fall under the aforementioned categories, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy seemed to come closest to breaking the mold, delivering a fair amount of off-the-cuff character humor before devolving into the routine half-hour of large-scale destruction and/or aerial combat that critic Matt Zoller-Seitz has termed “things crashing into things.”

What I long to see in effects-driven spectacles are moments like the one in Jurassic Park in which Laura Dern first sees brontosauruses in the flesh after revering them in her mind for decades. Her wonderment at the reality of the dinosaurs amplifies the viewer’s wonderment at seeing realistic-looking dinosaurs onscreen. But this isn’t enough for her (or for director Steven Spielberg, whose innovations have been cheapened more and more by each new summer slate of two-dimensional blockbusters)—Dern must interact with the dinosaurs up close. In no time, it seems, Dern is digging through triceratops shit with her own hands. She refuses to take for granted the wonder of living, breathing dinosaurs; she must gauge their texture and stink. There’s a new Jurassic Park sequel coming out this summer, along with reboots of the Terminator and Mad Max franchises and numerous vehicles for familiar comic book characters. I expect most of these movies to take their fantastic premises for granted and offer more “things crashing into things,” though I hope I’m proven wrong. Untethered Moon is proof that one can start from a place of familiarity and find new observations, even a sense of wonder.