Four minutes into the ninth song of Built to Spill’s seventh album, frontman Doug Martsch channels the spirit of a late, lamented comedic firebrand while calling for all those who practice the nefarious arts of advertising and marketing to kill themselves, cooing: “Bill Hicks was right, about what they should do”. But such bouts of protest-song polemic have been hitherto rare in the BtS songbook, and the rest of There Is No Enemy’s lyric sheet focuses on off-kilter love poesies, like the moment in opener Aisle 13 where he imagines his lover covered in ants, “Because you’re so sweet”.
Martsch, as long-term fans will attest, isn’t a man to monkey with a formula that works: since happening upon the winning trick of gilding his vulnerable and sweet ditties with layer after layer of overdubbed guitar, and strings, and synths, on his group’s proggily-symphonic (but never pompous) third album, 1997’s Perfect From Now On, he’s doggedly stuck to this blueprint. With his last two full-lengths, this formula began to feel somewhat formulaic, and not a little ‘phoned-in’; but while There Is No Enemy is BtS’s most arresting and engaging release in a decade, it too boasts no huge changes in direction or sound.
Perhaps it’s the celebrity guests on hand – Sam Coomes of Quasi, Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary and Jellyfish founder Roger Manning – who’ve provided the shot-in-the-arm that has re-energised Martsch. Regardless, There Is No Enemy plays brilliantly to Built to Spill’s strengths, epics like Done and Tomorrow caressed with graceful and painstakingly-arranged guitars, building to grand crescendos lent a cherishably human touch by Martsch’s fragile croon and lissom melodies.
This is, unquestionably, an album in love with the electric guitar, with its sonic possibilities, its emotional articulacy: if Martsch’s lyrics tend to the characteristically impenetrable, the over-layered cat’s-cradles of FX-doused solos, duos, trios and quartets locate the songs’ heart and soul, their emotional message. Despite the bounty of overdubs, however, there’s little self-indulgence to There Is No Enemy; Martsch’s overloaded approach might scream ‘prog’, but he also possesses a perfectly-disciplined, ‘pop’ songwriting sensibility, with every lengthy instrumental coda married to contagious choruses and melodic barbs that lodge in the mind.
It’s a tricky balance to maintain; that There Is No Enemy manages it so brilliantly is reason for celebration. --Stevie Chick
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