As startling an opener as you’ll find in the storied Built to Spill songbook, “Aisle 13” tears in with a wonky rush of frenzied fret-boarding that would sound totally at home on a Mars Volta album, provided that Omar Rodriguez-Lopez was allotted only a half-dosage of whatever alien meth typically fuels his schizoid noodling. Take that in conjunction with There Is No Enemy‘s uncanny cover art: Is this Built to Spill’s prog record? It’s no such departure, and as assurance, “Aisle 13” is followed by the midtempo country-rock track “Hindsight.” Built to Spill has made a career out of cuts that sound like Neil Young & Crazy Horse outtakes, and “Hindsight” could be their Crazy Horse-iest.
There’s a terrific mid-album scorcher called “Pat” that revisits the fury of the opening track, but for the most part, Built to Spill plays things safe here. Dough Martsch’s languid virtuosity gets plenty of beautiful showcases, those long, hyper-melodic solos that have always been his calling card surfacing on nearly every track. Unlike 2006’s stripped-down You in Reverse, There Is No Enemy gets a glossy production job courtesy of Doug Trumfio, and the slick, glam result is reminiscent of T. Rex. That’s pretty consistent with the band’s trajectory since the mid-‘90s, though the return-to-form will not please lo-fi partisans who like Built to Spill better when they sound like that other dinosaur band.
There are a few unexpected highlights, like the trippy solo on “Done” and the surprising horn interlude on “Things Fall Apart,” but for the most part, Built to Spill is in a holding pattern. That’s hard to argue with when the end result is so consistent, but the weaknesses that typically mar Built to Spill albums (overlong songs, that occasional awkward sense that the lyrics are just there to kill time between solos) can certainly be found here. At 54 minutes, the album would’ve been significantly enhanced by the omission of bland cuts like the tepid closer “Tomorrow” and the too-presciently-named “Good Ol’ Boredom.”
Nonetheless, many of the tracks are engaging throughout, and nearly all are redeemed by an inventive riff (my favorite: “Life’s a Dream”), a well-timed tonal variation (the menacing chug that sneaks in to “Oh Yeah”), or, failing all else, one hell of a guitar solo. It’s the type of record where an abundance of garden-variety good songs rub shoulders with casually excellent ones, and it’s the privilege of being music consumers at a time when auteurs like Martsch can pursue their visions that we can more or less take it for granted. For as long as this critic has known how to turn on a radio, listening to Martsch play guitar has been one of the great rewards of the rock n’ roll underground, and his work on this album, though not exceptional by his own previous standards, is nonetheless worthy of repeat listens.
At a time when a “Guitar Hero” is something your kid brother picks up at GameStop, Martsch is a pantheon unto himself. There Is No Enemy reminds us to keep the faith: With the talent on display here, there’s every reason to believe that the man will deliver another classic Built to Spill record someday. This isn’t one, but in its best moments (and many of it’s merely good moments), you’ll be surprised at how little you mind.