Built to Spill represent a certain ideal in North American indie rock, driven by guitars both shimmering and Crazy Horse ragged. They’re averse to empty gestures of flash but prone to a scruffy and understated heroism all the same—primarily through the ever-dazzling gravitational pull of those very guitars that founder and sole permanent member Doug Martsch has made the band’s focal point since their more lo-fi beginnings. Which in hindsight highlights a certain irony in the band having released six albums and spent 20 years on Warner Bros. They’re by no means the weirdest band to explore the greener pastures of a major label, though their longevity is perhaps the most remarkable aspect—where peers such as Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and The Flaming Lips have each adapted their college-radio idiosyncrasies for a mainstream radio audience, Built to Spill have long held true to being Built to Spill. No flashy theatrics, no Hot 100 chart ambitions, just infinite permutations of their warmly, dreamily familiar guitar rock.
When the Wind Forgets Your Name, the band’s ninth studio album of original material, breaks the Warner streak in favor of a new partnership with Sub Pop, one that seems to make too much sense to have only happened now, three decades into the band’s career. And with that comes a handful of other changes, notably the addition of Le Almeida and João Casaes of Brazilian group Oruã to the sessions (though they’ve since exited the band). After a brief intermission spent covering Daniel Johnston songs in 2020, Built to Spill return with a replenished bag of tricks and an abundant well of new ideas. Though they’ve long showcased the “always different, always the same” quality that John Peel once levied at The Fall, on When the Wind Forgets Your Name, Built to Spill lean further toward the former.
Where the group’s ’90s-era Phil Ek-produced records seemed to radiate with heat and light and their subsequent Martsch-produced albums carried more earthtone studio verité, When the Wind Forgets Your Name splits the difference in favor of something that glows without blinding those who gaze in its direction. While no song here could be mistaken for anyone other than Built to Spill—Martsch’s unmistakable vocal tone has a lot to do with that—there are moments throughout where sounds crop up that you might have never expected to hear on a Built to Spill album, whether the whirring organ and sci-fi synths of moody highlight “Elements,” to the more muscular rhythmic push and prickly harmonics of “Never Alright” and the psychedelic jangle of the infectious “Understood.” Yet while they’re new in context, they don’t sound foreign, each diversion that Martsch and company takes integrated seamlessly into what remains an album that truly only Built to Spill—whatever lineup it happens to comprise at the moment—could have made.
Nearly a decade ago, Doug Martsch confessed his own concerns about whether his creative well had been thoroughly tapped. The other side of that dry spell, however, sounds both reassuring and energizing, as When the Wind Forgets Your Name featuring some of the strongest material the group’s released since the ’90s. Built to Spill’s made it three decades both without running out of ideas and without losing sight of what really makes a Built to Spill record. What’s remarkable is that reinvention has never been part of that process, only new ways to view an already good thing.
Label: Sub Pop
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.