It’s been six years since the last Built To Spill album, There Is No Enemy, a record that many believed might well be the band’s last. Even lynchpin Doug Martsch thought that the game might be up as he mulled over his age and ability to even carry on.
Yet despite the doubts, Untethered Moon made it to completion. Martsch’s need to make music clearly, and fortunately outstripped his concerns regarding his mental and physical capacity to continue. These themes have, unsurprisingly, crept into the band’s music and lyrics. C.R.E.B. (an acronym for a cellular protein that relates to long-term memory function) for example is a painfully sad description of memory loss set to a surprisingly chipper musical backdrop. “I never meant to forget you, I always forget people I really love” croons Martsch as he rails against his failing brain and synapses. “How much of what I am counts upon the CREB?” he wonders before the song meanders into a reggae inspired mid-section.
Another Day changes tack, and rather than pointing his anger inwards, he channels it, spoiling for a fight insisting “I just want you to know how I feel”. There’s urgency to his wired guitar playing here; abrasive runs and stabbing chords are underpinned by his insistent rhythm section. By the close, everyone’s onside and wanting to vent “now it seems the only thing on our minds is getting all these things off our chests before I die”.
If There Is No Enemy wasn’t to be Built To Spill’s final statement, then the content here rather points towards it or at least towards a kind of resignation. There’s a sense of setting things straight here; it’s not just a comment in an interview but the whole point of songs like C.R.E.B. At times it feels like Martsch is at a loss to explain his feelings or how to cope with them. On Some Other Song he’s on the edge of the abyss, “I don’t know how to never fall apart, still wondering how to never fall apart” he croons, like Neil Young at the edge of the abyss.
But it’s not all sadness, ageing, death and finality. There are glimmers of hope too. All Our Songs kicks the album off in raucous style. A rattling rock tune that soars, it is charged with a wide eyed positivity. It’s not just there in the vibrant musical delivery (think Crazy Horse, gone actually crazy) and a realisation from Martsch that there might be salvation in music after all. “And I knew, when I woke up, rock and roll will be here forever” he sings, adding later “all these songs sounded like we’re in this together”. This is more than a bellowed “ROCK AND ROLL WILL NEVER DIE!” it’s about leaving a legacy and also acknowledging the support that music gives to untold numbers of people.
Thankfully these notions are tied into a big rock tune, so sound a lot less worth than they might do in more delicate hands. The excitable Living Zoo follows and accelerates through the opening section with an almost childish glee as if the band can’t wait to let the audience in on the secret that nestles at the heart of these songs which is ostensibly “things are rough, but we get over it, and we go on”. There’s a joyfulness at play here “We are lions, we are tigers” asserts Martsch, and his guitar roars along with him.
There’s a darkness that runs through this album, but it’s almost always offset by something positive. When I’m Blind might rely on that old staple Gospel “I was blind but now I see” the use of the idea seems relevant to the themes of the album; notably history, memory and the power of music to heal, unify and provide a legacy. Untethered Moon might not be the last will and testament of Built To Spill, but if it were, it’d be a damn fine epitaph.