In Praise of Built to Spill’s “Keep It Like a Secret”

When I was in college, I didn't want rock stars. I wanted Built to Spill.

I started college at the University of Akron in August of 2002. Rock 'n' roll had "returned" by then, but I was far too enamored with the somber everyman aesthetic of the Midwestern emo boom to take a bunch of foppish, leather-clad New Yorkers very seriously.

The inevitability of emo's swift decline then smacked me in the face the day after classes started, at a scene-kid-infested Taking Back Sunday show in Cleveland. So I decided my first matter of business as an oft-stoned college student was to seek out a more appropriate lifestyle soundtrack.

The curation of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora were still years down the road, so I began my journey using the only resource I had: Amazon Listmania.

My love for Jimmy Eat World's Clarity helped me stumble upon artists like Mineral and Cap'n Jazz. So searching for "essential college albums" on AltaVista seemed liked a good place to start.

I bristled at the predictability of the lists at first. Frustrated yet bored beyond comprehension, I clicked around aimlessly until an album with a blue cover featuring a girl with tiny wings finally caught my eye. It was Keep It Like a Secret by Built to Spill.

I did a quick search to see what these guys were all about while the album downloaded on Audiogalaxy. The first thing I found was a press photo of the group, which immediately assuaged any concerns about them being pretentious aesthetes far too cool for an average kid from Akron, Ohio, to sincerely enjoy.

"These guys look like dads," I thought.

At a time when every relevant offshoot of rock music was being corrupted by haircuts, seeing a balding guy in cargo shorts felt incredibly promising. In a weird way, the aggressive average-ness of Built to Spill fostered high hopes.

Keep It Like a Secret blew me away from the get-go. I was no stranger to poppy guitar rock by then, but the urgency and cohesion of the album's disparate elements struck me immediately. As far as opening tracks that function as an album's statement of purpose go, "The Plan" is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats. Here's a band that crams bright and jangly chords, dueling lead guitars and Doug Martsch's plaintive yowling about love, space and sidewalks into carefully built ear candy for an aspiring stoner not yet ready to go deep into prog rock or jam bands.

Prior to Secret, Built to Spill crafted buzz-worthy albums with the loopy pop of 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love and the epic, perma-stoned sprawl of 1997's Perfect From Now On. Secret joyously melds the two sounds into a tightly-wound 10-song collection that's are equal parts dense and delectable.

Martsch's mastery of fusing space-rock onto ebullient anthems reaches its apotheosis on "Time Trap," Secret's five-minute centerpiece, which employs guitar feedback and tremolo picking to drop the album's catchiest and most buoyant moment from out of nowhere. Followed by the drippy romanticism of "Else" and the classic-rock Easter egg hunt of "You Were Right," Martsch keeps his earlier promise to be "perfect from now on."

With Secret nearing its 20th birthday and the requisite press junket of re-issues and reappraisals that inevitably come along with it, it's hard to ignore how much critical perceptions of guitar rock has changed in the two decades that followed. Pitchfork originally awarded the album a 9.3 when it dropped in 1999, but it's hard to imagine Secret getting little more than a pat on the back from the publication now.

Considering the internet's truncation of nostalgia cycles, perhaps we're long overdue for yet another "rock revival" to be ushered in by scrappy youngsters who've found hope for the future of rock music in albums from the past like Keep It Like a Secret. As long as razor-sharp songwriting and endless layers of guitars take precedence over haircuts and jeans, then this 34-year-old is willing to keep the faith.

SEE IT: Built to Spill play Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with the Only Children, on Wednesday-Thursday, Jan. 3-4. 9 pm. Both shows sold out. 21+.

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