Imagine for a moment that you’re Neil Young. Now get a haircut and change your shirt. Oh, sorry—what I meant to say was, wouldn’t it drive you mad to contemplate fading into grunge godfather status after cooking up that rust-or-burn cliché yourself?
On the other hand, can you burn out if you never blow up? “Don’t you get tired of everyone you admire?/They never die, so why should I?” Built to Spill’s singer-writer-guitar hero Doug Martsch asks rather creepily on Ancient Melodies of the Future‘s “The Host.” Unwound’s singer-guitarist antihero Justin Trosper is positively cryptic on Leaves Turn Inside You‘s “Summer Freeze”: “Once I was alive—it took me by surprise.” The boys aren’t getting any younger, heh heh.
And after eight and 10 years at it, respectively, they probably won’t get much more famous, either. Built to Spill’s steady sales build has kept them signed to Warner Bros. without having to leave Idaho or kiss up to radio. Unwound have stayed with little labels, mostly their hometown Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars. And till now they’ve stuck to self-destructing hardcore freakouts, as opposed to songs about Christmas in Twin Falls.
The indie aesthetic means never having to say you’re not sorry for yourself. But Martsch knows empathy, and failing that, he knows how to crop the big picture. His sad songs record moments rather than declaring depression. Which either makes him brilliant or a budget Stephen Malkmus. Trosper has about as much use for documentary narrative as Raekwon, although he’s concerned with the consequences of immorality (a/k/a getting dissed by girls). Which either makes him brilliant or a budget Slick Rick.
What the new albums share musically is a not unsurprising but heretofore unmatched—by these guys—disregard for dynamics. Where past BTS albums have alternated between fidgety and forlorn with occasional showers of sparks, Ancient Melodies is in perpetual brownout. Where Unwound’s songs have usually been jagged or drained, Leaves Turn Inside You remains level for two discs (almost 80 minutes), making it one of the darkest, most placid hard rock records since Soundgarden’s Superunknown. Kill Rock Stars calls it a “long-awaited magnum opus,” but I prefer the label’s catalog description of 1995’s single-disc The Future of What: “complete w/ extra boredom” (in that case, a tacked-on K-hole of feedback followed by meandering organ). In fact, just saying it was long would suffice.
That doesn’t mean that you can stop reading, though! Most of the time, Leaves Turn Inside You is as pretty as its name. And it’s not like you have to listen to both CDs in a row. I’d recommend favoring disc two (there’s no one, just two and three—Unwound must be on some Star Wars prequel shit). “We Invent You” opens the album with Mellotron stabs that merge into a monochromatic rainbow longer than many of their old sawing-and-screaming songs. This segues into the swaying guitar line, which, after a dramatic pause, lets in a slow rhythm-section swell and stretched-out vocals. Which then stop to give the drums a solo turn. After nearly four minutes of reinvention, the song begins. This is how you make a double album with 15 tracks.
It’s also how you pretend to disappear completely, à la Radiohead: Make a public statement by refusing to present a united front. Which is not to say, also remembering Radiohead, that things don’t coalesce at times, as with “Off This Century.” Frenetic, energetic, and copacetic, disc two’s final track never loses its momentum even if it is repetitive and sort of slow. Compared to, say, Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” it’s sexless, but not bloodless. Leaves ends much as it begins, with “Who Cares,” a minute of mysterious music followed by another minute of presumably sampled Dixieland. On any other Unwound album this would clearly be a joke. It’s hard, though, not to read “Who Cares” as a statement of purpose.
As he trudges through this life, Doug Martsch will probably always care, albeit in that awkward Neil Young way. Covering Young’s “Cortez the Killer” on last year’s amazing Live, Martsch sounded innocent like very few others (Eddie Vedder, Justin Timberlake, your mom), innocent enough to make his always melodic, sometimes chaotic guitar and voice seem pained, not politically incorrect or naive, even as he remarked how the Aztec women “all were beautiful” before the Spanish, um, killed them.
Stoking pathos—and male fantasy, aggressive as well as condescending—is easy when imperialism’s your subject. But calling yourself a survivor is compelling only if you then call yourself bootylicious. Or when you reveal the conflicts that keeping on entails, as Martsch does on “The Host.” Yet he’s unable to elaborate, unable to do more than shrug and say, “Happiness will happen when it can,” unable to decide whether or not we have reason to be tired of him or anyone else we admire. At worst, the string arrangements, stretched syllables, and sentimentality of Ancient Melodies of the Future are so polished and predictable they make you tired for him. At best, you let yourself believe that all the music is beautiful because to deny that any of it is would be barbaric. But we are not killing the dream. A clairvoyant line from “Car,” an early Built to Spill standout that’s even stronger on Live, finds Martsch in full-on innocent-cynical mode: “If I don’t die or worse, I’m gonna need a nap.” Thing is, rust never sleeps.