Versus: Built to Spill

Versus is a series in which we pit selected albums against one another and offer case statements for which is superior. In our latest installment, we match Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On and You in Reverse and pose the question: which do you think is the better album?

Perfect From Now On (1997)

The consistency and quality of Built to Spill’s catalogue is such that you should really just think of the albums discussed here as recommended listening. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a single reason why Perfect From Now On shouldn’t be considered their best. Not only is it their greatest statement, it represents a genuine musical transformation; a creative leap forward that no one saw coming. It’s the sound of a band throwing conventions out the window and leaping into indie’s upper echelons without so much as a second thought. The charmingly off-key teenhood tales of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (which there isn’t, by the way) can’t hold a candle to its casual, cosmic energy. It’s the universe under a microscope, a philosophical juggernaut of a record that tickles your brain while you revel in its musicality.

Perfect From Now On covers more ground than some bands could hope to over an entire career, but there’s still an immaculate sense of continuity to it. Each of its eight lumbering numbers is a standout and unlike some of their later offerings, none of them are strained or overlong. If at any point your attention starts drifting, a change in tempo or key will come out of nowhere and pull you back in.

Even though it was new terrain for them, Doug Martsch & co. tinker with everything, fascinated by the sonic possibilities of the traditional rock setup. Each track has something different to offer. The paranoid, creaky swells of “I Would Hurt A Fly” become stretched into a highbrow jamming session; “Kicked It In the Sun” is a multi-headed beast that’s both symphonic and euphoric, with a defeated-sounding first half that mushrooms into pop of the highest caliber at the drop of a hat; “Randy Described Eternity” contains lyrics so vast and mind-bending that they deserve to be written out in full here, but the first verse will suffice:

“Every thousand years/This metal sphere ten times the size of Jupiter/Floats just a few yards past the Earth/You climb on your roof/And take a swipe at it with a single feather/Hit it once every thousand years/’Til you’ve worn it down to the size of a pea/I’d say that’s a long time/But it’s only half a blink in the place you’re gonna be.”

And that all goes down in its first two minutes. “Stop the Show” has three distinct sections and accelerates through them in thrilling fashion; plunky, undulating guitar parts slowly mesh together underneath existential reflection on “Velvet Waltz”: “You thought of everything/But some things can’t be thought.” Other tracks like “Untrustable/Part 2” and “Out of Sight” serve as compliments, but are still outstanding in their own right.

Perfect From Now On is so complete and purposeful, satisfying in the same way as a five-course dinner. It’s rich and elaborate with an abundance of lingering notes and flavours. The bottom line is that while other records may come close in places, Perfect From Now On is front-to-back their best. There’s really no way I can prove it to you, but as they say, proving is illogical.

– Brendan Frank

Built to Spill – Perfect From Now On by Rob Hakimian on Grooveshark

Listen to Perfect From Now On on Spotify

You in Reverse (2006)

No disrespect to the otherwise superb early offerings from Boise, Idaho based Built to Spill, but 2006’s You in Reverse is in a class of its own. Throughout the LP, songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Doug Martsch taps into a fresh, captivating balance of intricate, meandering guitar lines and a distinctive vocal whisper not fully realized on any of the band’s previous albums. Matching Martsch’s exiguous lyrics with melodic, interwoven guitars that allow his tracks to breathe and build, You In Reverse conveys a sentiment that is at once heart wrenching, fatalist, and pluckily defiant: “Look out the world’s destroying ya / Relax it isn’t fair / Mother nature’s disposition / She don’t mind, she don’t care.”

On opening cut “Going Against Your Mind,” which carries a compelling energy across the entirety of its eight-plus minutes, layered, scathing electric guitars evoke a phantasmagoria of shrieking sirens, shrill cries, and a frantic scramble for cover. Halfway through the track, Martsch lures us into the eye of the storm with ethereal hooks and a fragile, bewildered falsetto: “When I was a kid I saw a light / Floating high above the trees one night.” This sense of security, however, is fleeting. The song erupts with sinister momentum atop throbbing bass, thunderous percussion, and jagged, coarse distortion, as Built to Spill hurls us headlong into a chaotic instrumental melee.

“Traces” has Martsch grappling with insomnia infused dilemmas amidst inconceivably precise flourishes that oscillate between resilient conviction and nonchalant detachment. Keeping us on our toes, the steady, sparse chord progression and jangly tambourine of down-tempo “Saturday” gives way to the highflying, blistering guitars and fuzzy static reverb of “Wherever You Go,” as the singer struggles to be heard amidst the cacophony.

Martsch’s nimble digits blur the frets with spectral virtuosity on upbeat “Conventional Wisdom,” setting forth a barrage of peppy, coruscating riffs. Chirping with frenetic zest, the singer taunts: “Some things you can’t explain / Nothing’s goanna change that / Like why we’re all embracing conventional wisdom in a world that so un-con-ven-tion-al,” drawing out that final word before blasting a fundamentally anthemic hook. Empowered with newfound insight and backed by crisp, celestial hooks, Martsch chides: “They don’t know they’re wrong / But you know that they never can see that / That’s what makes them strong.”

Even the LP’s back end is studded with gems. From incendiary, percussion-drenched “The Wait,” to the heavily distorted solo that wraps up “Mess with Time,” each cut on the entire album is completely relevant.

The album concludes by highlighting Martsch’s rare ability to fuse haunting, deconstructed acoustic strumming with soaring electric licks in a single, unified track. Transitioning from vocals doused with heavy echo to supernal guitars, spacey electronic effects, and a majestic organ, Martsch’s shivery vocal delivery leaves us with a sense of infinite longing and an insatiable need for change: “You wait for summer, then you wait for rain… You wait for darkness then you wait for day… You wait for someone that’ll make the waiting worth the wait.”

You in Reverse stands apart from Built to Spill’s other offerings in its flawless balance of densely rendered lyrical fragments and melodically intertwined guitars that leave just enough space for Martsch’s falsetto to slip through the cascade.

– Henry Hauser

Built to Spill – You in Reverse by Rob Hakimian on Grooveshark

Listen to You in Reverse on Spotify.

Which of these Built to Spill albums do you most prefer? Drop us your vote in the comments below.