Built To Spill could have stopped after the ’90s and still been legends. When the decade ended, Boise’s finest indie rock export had dropped three straight masterpieces: 1994’s starry-eyed indie-pop milestone There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, 1997’s spaced-out prog-pop behemoth Perfect From Now On, and 1999’s spectacularly catchy guitar-hero epic Keep It Like A Secret. Few bands have ever mustered such an unimpeachable run. Doug Martsch’s genius was confirmed, his status as an indie rock guitar hero cemented. There was nothing left to prove.
At times, I have been tempted to view this band’s 21st century output as an inessential epilogue to their glory days. I now realize that’s nonsense. Obviously, indisputably, Built To Spill peaked in the ’90s; those first couple albums for Warner Bros. are literally incredible, as in I can’t believe music so breathtakingly awesome is not a figment of my imagination. That’s an impossible standard to maintain. Yet even if BTS lost a step somewhere along the way, they never stopped churning out vital melodic guitar bangers. Listening back from a distance of years, their post-Y2K albums hold up remarkably well — starting with Ancient Melodies Of The Future, released 20 years ago this week.
Ancient Melodies is a curious entry in Built To Spill’s catalog. Up until last year’s Daniel Johnston tribute, it was their shortest proper LP, clocking in at just over 39 minutes. It may be their slowest and darkest batch of songs too, which is a weird thing to say about an album that yielded the most radio hits of their career. A dense cloud of somber psychedelic beauty hangs over much of it, as if Martsch and longtime producer Phil Ek were aiming to replicate the splendor fellow Up Records graduates Modest Mouse had captured on the prior year’s The Moon & Antarctica. Rob Sheffield’s Rolling Stone review referenced the grandiosity achieved by Warner brethren the Flaming Lips on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, which also makes sense. The major-label indie-rockers of the moment were making good use of their fancy studios.
But those Lips and Modest Mouse albums were mammoth widescreen experiences, whereas Ancient Melodies was the sound of Built To Spill reining themselves in. The songs hung heavy with dense, intricate beauty, but for the most part they were shorter and simpler than what came before. The ever-understated Martsch called it “a cross between the last two records; something dramatic, but with shorter songs and a little more straightforward.” David Browne’s rave at Entertainment Weekly summed up the paradox more vividly: “Singer-guitarist Doug Martsch and his band adopt a tougher, tighter sound, as well as a more expansive one: With their remorseful slide guitars, radiant keyboards, and Martsch’s wounded elf voice, the songs turn, wearily and sublimely, into mini-epics.”
Even in this more compact form, Built To Spill’s ambition could not be contained. Even on an album that came close to drowning in melancholy, the pop instincts jumped out. Lush but straightforward in its charms, opening track “Strange” rolls along at molasses speed and achieves similar sweetness. Closer “The Weather” is even more pared-down; it begins with little more than acoustic guitar and Martsch’s quivering voice and edges perilously close to the parody ballad from the end of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love before working its way to one of Martsch’s most transcendent lyrics: “As long as it’s talking with you/ Talk of the weather will do.” Lovely keyboard work from Quasi’s Sam Coomes contributes to each song’s graceful sway, that sense that a streamlined radio-friendly Built To Spill is still more otherworldly than most.
In between is an assortment of new ideas and the tried-and-true. The galactic sprawl of Perfect From Now On comes through in the tense “In Your Mind” and the magisterial “Alarmed.” Soaring and propulsive rockers “Trimmed And Burning” and “Don’t Try” could easily fit in on Keep It Like A Secret. But Martsch also introduces the rootsier tendencies explored on his solo album Now You Know on the slide-guitar delights “Happiness” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss” — a striking contrast to the new maudlin depths explored on “The Host.” For a compact statement that hangs together like one coherent thought, Ancient Melodies covers a lot of ground.
As someone who fell in love with Built To Spill when Ancient Melodies was their newest album, I remember feeling like a fog hung over these songs, like it was the sound of a great band on autopilot. Speaking to the Detroit Metro Times that year, Martsch basically admitted as much: “Part of it is that when we made this last record, it really felt kind of routine. Which was sort of nice, because it wasn’t very stressful.” In that same interview he even suggested that it might be time for BTS to switch things up because “if you’re that comfortable with what you’re doing, it’s probably starting to get crappy.” Yet returning to this album now with low expectations, I was stunned at how many of the songs have imprinted themselves on my brain. Here in the future, Ancient Melodies is an intensely dynamic listen, a document of a band so good they could write classics in their sleep.