Here’s a question for all the philosophers out there—is Built to Spill a new band or an old one? It’s an easy question at first glance, considering that Doug Martsch’s band first gained acclaim in the late ‘90s for indie rock classics Perfect From Now On and Keep It Like a Secret. Those albums stood opposed to the up-with-anarchy grunge of Nirvana, preferring either big, sunny hooks or moody, intense jams which slowly built up to their shredding.
Proudly from Boise, Martsch never wanted to fit in too much with the rest of the music scene, ‘90s or otherwise. After signing to Warner, Martsch told Uproxx recently that he “didn’t like the idea of our stuff being played on the radio a bunch, and I didn’t want us to have a hit. I was a little nervous that we might accidentally have a hit, and that our music would be shoved into people’s faces.”
Martsch wanted little to do with anything conventional in music, right down to the composition of the band, which is where our philosophical conundrum comes into play. Martsch saw BtS as a solo project where band members would change every album, and while that hasn’t quite worked out in his long career, his current lineup has played together only since 2019. Their first album of original material, When the Wind Forgets Your Name, sounds just like a classic Built to Spill album should.
Further complicating the divide between new and old, Martsch also tells Uproxx that some of the songs on this album “have tried to be on records before. Most of them are pretty old, and a couple of them are really old.”
These binaries fall away upon hearing a track like “Spiderweb,” in which Martsch absolutely shreds. If this music sounds familiar, it’s because it is very good music. His new band, which features Melanie Radford on bass and Teresa Esguerra on drums, specializes in the reverb-friendly yearning that Martsch has made his signature. On the opening track, “Born to Lose,” the riffs start right away, settling the listener in for some serious head nodding, the more relaxed, but no less intensive, version of head banging.
The lyrics here are felt more than they are understood. “Swimming down the river white / Into the ocean blue / And in a cave beneath the ocean floor / You find another you” goes the opening of “Elements,” and what really makes these lyrics work are the heroic-sounding guitars, soaring and getting across an elemental feeling. “I don’t know just what it means / But I like the way it sounds,” he says at the track’s end.
Not knowing things becomes a pattern on the album. On the next track, “Rocksteady,” a song that deals with the ups and downs that come with aging, the end features Martsch saying “Geometry, trigonometry / I don’t know what they mean” but just that “none of that’s gonna help with all this pain.” What will help is obvious, as a slow, pretty riff takes over. And then comes the most epic sound of the album on “Spiderweb,” which could feature next to “I Would Hurt a Fly” and “You Were Right” on a career-spanning compilation.
“I had no idea I was going to have a career in music when I was a young person,” Martsch says in the Uproxx interview. The sounds emanating from When the Wind Forgets Your Name might seem like new iterations on past sounds, but for Doug Martsch, they’re not old at all. They’re brand new because now is when they’re being made, and thank God for that.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.