Since Built to Spill’s There Is No Enemy was released in 2009, unabashed guitar rock has gone out of style. But here comes Untethered Moon, blissfully ignorant of trends or label expectations, ever still the ‘90s indie rock sound the band has never given up on. Like Dinosaur Jr. or Sleater-Kinney, Built to Spill has stuck to a blueprint throughout their career, not confined by their sound, but willfully imprisoned. And like those other bands, Built to Spill continue to make arguments against change, a musical personification of the “if it ain’t broke” idiom.
Built to Spill play with this idea in the lyrics of Untethered Moon. The album gets unwittingly self-referential, when on “Never Be the Same,” frontman Doug Martsch notes, “That’s the way it’s gonna be, ‘cause that’s the way it’s always been/ And in another century, it’s gonna be this way again.” Earlier, on the record’s opening highlight “All Our Songs,” Martsch sings “I like all those old songs/ sound like they’ve been here forever.” It seems likely that Martsch’s deep-seated hope is that his own music achieves this sense of timelessness.
Luckily this goal doesn’t drive Untethered Moon into a simple retread of steps that have come before. “All Our Songs” is inspired in its “Ballroom Blitz”-percussion and daring guitar lines, and the metaphor behind “Living Zoo” is accentuated by playful guitar roars. “Another Day” is as close to Built to Spill’s ‘90s selves as we might ever see again, with mighty power chords leading into a triumphant guitar breakdown. In fact, more often than not, the instrumentals take precedent over Martsch’s vocals—as in the last minute of “So” and the excellent middle section of closer “When I’m Blind”—with guitar tones and inflections still gripping and sacred in the band’s hands.
Perhaps the only real drawback of the LP is that it never quite reaches the emotional resonance that we’ve seen from Built to Spill in the past. But it wisely steers clear of overly reflective ballads, highlighting the strengths of Martsch’s songwriting instead. When speaking about the record, Martsch divulges, “We are trying to make music that people will enjoy.” For an album with a simple objective, Untethered Moon is a humble gift to fans.