One could be forgiven for coming to Untethered Moon, the new release from alt-rock giants Built To Spill, with a healthy dash of trepidation. After all, it’s been six years since the band’s last album, and in that time two core members of the group have quit; lead singer Doug Martsch has been through a self-confessed period of burn out; and live shows have been few and far between. But any fear one might have that the new record couldn’t possibly live up to former glories will be dashed as soon as the distinctively jangly album-opener All Our Songs begins to properly get underway. Untethered Moon might have been born from a burn-out, but there is nothing hesitant or troubled about it; indeed, time may well reveal it to be on par with the band’s near perfect Keep It Like A Secret.
Tonal mashup has always been the key to Built To Spill’s success. The band record songs that sound like the kind of triumphant crowd-pleasers that one would find playing at the end of a Hollywood ‘against-all-odds’ story, but their tunes always contain enough ambiguity and grit to keep things fresh and thrilling. The emotive On The Way is an exemplary track in this way: acoustic and yet pounding, insistent yet thematically gentle, it’s a complex collection of contradictions.
Never Be The Same similarly impresses. Martsch’s understated, distinctive vocals are as powerful as ever, and the manner in which he emotes his way through the chorus without ever seeming to really try makes the song an understated delight. So is a different kind of pleasure; it’s a brash, jangly number that manages to find beauty and catharsis in the rise and fall of guitar fuzz. But though different, both tracks represent the band on fine, fine form.
The album’s lyrics are as obtusely brilliant as the band’s work in the past. At times, the words are deliberately dense; the gritty, attention-grabbing C.R.E.B. takes its name from a structure of molecules. And yet, at other moments, the esoteric nature of the lyric impresses because of its simplicity. There are few singers who could make a line as seemingly mundane and clichéd as “I can’t wait to get back home to you” seem as layered and emotionally resonant as Martsch does on Some Other Song.
It’s hard to resist the whole ‘phoenix out of the ashes’ metaphor when reviewing Untethered Moon. From professionally troubled times, comes this defiant, resilient release. It’s the music of hope; raw, and powerful. But more than that, it’s the music of a band with purpose; with drive; and with a creative integrity that doesn’t show any signs of letting up.