Built to Spill’s ‘Perfect From Now On': still flawless at 25
Recording an album multiple times is rarely a good sign. Usually something like that is associated with mega-selling artists, your Fleetwood Macs and such, and certainly not with died-in-the-wool indie rockers. But that’s what happened when Built to Spill made their major label debut. Bandleader and guitar god Doug Martsch had tried recording it on his own with drummer Peter Lansdowne but, unhappy with the results, he brought in Spinnanes drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson, both of whom had toured/recorded as part of Built To Spill previously, to make the record as a full band with producer Phil Ek. Unfortunately, the tapes were destroyed when Ek, who also produced their 1994 album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, was driving from Seattle to Boise to record overdubs. They had to start again.
In this case, though, the third time was the charm and Built to Spill's perfectly imperfect third album hit shelves on January 28, 1997. It was an unlikely first release for a band moving up to the major leagues. While There’s Nothing Wrong With Love was jam-packed with shambolic indie rock sing-a-longs like “Big Dipper,” “In the Morning,” and “Distopian Dream Girl,” Perfect From Now On was a sprawling guitar orgasm where most of the eight songs went past six minutes and none followed a traditional verse-chorus-verse format. Perfect From Now On and Radiohead’s OK Computer both seemed to prove prog was making inroads into indie rock in 1997, even if Marstch bristled at the description.
“It seems to me that there's a lot of bands that are doing similar things to what we're doing – and just because songs have different parts or tempo changes doesn't make them prog-rock,” Martsch told Westword’s Michael Roberts at the time, saying he had never listened to Yes, Genesis or bands of that ilk. (King Crimson, though? Maybe.) "To me, the songwriting is the main thing. Songs take a long time for me to write, and a lot of ideas pass through my head when I'm writing them. But basically, what I try to do is make them interesting all the way through, so you won't get that bored with them. As most people do, I have a wide variety of influences and a lot of different aesthetics, and a lot of times I find two opposites equally appealing – and I don't see any reason why both of them can't be in the same song. I think just about anything can be pulled off in music and sound cool if you do it in an interesting way, and that's what I try to do within the limitations of how well I can sing and play guitar. Maybe if I was a better guitar player or a better singer, it would sound like prog-rock."
Psychedelic is probably a more apt term for Perfect From Now. Marstch displays a wide-eyed wondrousness, both with his words and his instrument, trying to reach as far as he can. “Randy Described Eternity,” which opens the album and gives it its title, has him looking to the stars:
Every thousand years
This metal sphere
Ten times the size of Jupiter
Floats just a few yards past the Earth
If you climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
'Til you've worn it down
To the size of a pea
Yeah, I'd say that's a long time
But it's only half a blink in the place we're going to be
Perfect From Now On is not an overly wordy album, but he makes what lyrics there are count. (As on most of BTS' albums, Doug got some valuable help from his partner, poet Karena Youtz, on a few songs.) Lines like “There’s a mean bone in my body” (“I Would Hurt a Fly”); “You thought of everything but some things can’t be thought” (“Velvet Waltz”); “No one wants to hear what you dreamt about unless you dreamt about them” (“Made Up Dreams”); “We're special in other ways” (“Kicked it In the Sun”); and “I'd love to see it but it's something you just feel” (“Untrustable / Part 2 [About Someone Else]”) have stuck in my head over the last 25 years. Doug may not think of himself as a very good singer, but his high register yelp, part of the reason he gets compared to Neil Young frequently, is perfect for these songs.
What really dazzles is the way the words weave into Built to Spill’s melodies and musicianship. No song ends where it starts, and Martsch leads the band on the bendiest, most surprising paths possible, full zigs, zags, time changes, key changes, purposeful noodling, masterful transitions, serious shredding, and heavenly arrangements. Perfect From Now On is full of blissful transcendence: the cellos in “I Would Hurt a Fly” (courtesy John McMahon, the album’s secret weapon); guitar filigree midway through “Kicked it in Sun” that sounds like seagulls flying over crystal blue water at sunset; the rapid, slidey guitar parts in “Untrustable”; the ragged glory of “Velvet Waltz”’s last three minutes. But the single most transportive moment on the album comes 3:18 minutes into “Made Up Dreams,” when Marstch goes from "make it up as you go" to "I’m already gone now" -- the key changes, the strings come in and suddenly everything’s weightless. It thrills every time.
“I wanna see the movies of my dreams,” he sang on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love standout, “Car,” and with Perfect From Now On he made it happen.