Built to Spill – Keep It Like a Secret

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I find it interesting that Pacific Northwest guitar hero Doug Martsch did not associate with the grunge scene (he did thank “Kurt” in the liner notes to There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, but it could’ve referred to Kurt Bloch. Or some other Kurt we don’t know. We don’t know). He was in Seattle in the early ‘90’s with his band Treepeople; I can’t imagine he was an unknown quantity. I’m just glad Martsch preferred to hang with the indie kids at K Records.

What I Think of This Album

On Keep It Like a Secret, Built To Spill trades in the scope but not the ambition of Perfect From Now On. This time, Martsch distills his complex creativity into if not its purest form, then at least its most direct. Whereas he painted large canvases the previous time, here he has given himself a 12×12 area to work with, and he succeeds in using every square inch of it masterfully.

It’s inaccurate to call this pop, even if the songs have more traditional running times and are, of course, packed with melody. They are uranium-dense, full of twists and turns, guitars behaving like prairie dogs one second and peregrine falcons the next, with unusual sounds everywhere.

“The Plan” plunges immediately into a glorious pit of guitars, and over the next three minutes mutates many times over, changing form and color and mood. “Center of the Universe” is actually fairly conventional with one main musical theme that Martsch does not stray from; this is the one song that feels too short at not under three minutes. “Carry the Zero” rise and falls with increasing intensity as Martsch reaches his conclusion:  “You’ve become / What you thought was dumb / A fraction of the sum” and then the guitars take off in jaw-dropping fashion, their beauty feeding off their power and vice-versa, and you don’t know whether your heart or your brain will give in (or out) first. The band simply rocks out on “Sidewalk,” losing itself in the bliss of noise. There are bits of dark psychedelia on the meaty “Bad Light,” which churns away with vigor.

And after all this, it turns out that the late-middle triumverate of “Time Trap;” “Else;” and “You Were Right” is the heart and soul of this album. “You Were Right” is a gut punch of rock lyric cliches turned on their head – taking on Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Kansas, Hendrix, Dylan, the Stones, Bob Seger, and, um, John Cougar Mellencamp – and finding final validation in the Doors’ “The End.” “Time Trap” is mesmerizing with its shifting weather systems of guitars, and the gorgeous “Else” spins like the Milky Way. “Temporarily Blind” is a thrilling, breathtaking ride. Martsch, finally unable to contain himself any longer, releases all his pent-up energy on the almost nine-minute epic “Broken Chairs” (with guest lyrics by poet Uhuru Black), and he unwinds the history of the world back to the Stone Age with his guitars (and his whistling). This is an essential Built To Spill album, and probably the best album to start with for most folks.

Behind the boards we once again find Phil Ek.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Your body breaks / Your needs consume you forever” from “Else.” So true.

Release Date

February, 1999

The Cover Art

Just weird enough to be appealing. I like the odd colors (though the colors here do not exactly match up with my album, the blue in particular being very different) and the bad collage/Photoshop quality to the construction of the visual elements. The font is playful. Tae Won Yu of Kicking Giant did a much better job this time around.

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