Learning to love an essential album is not always a simple task. Upon first listening to Built to Spill’s Perfect from Now On, an eight-song psychedelic rock romp which clocks in at 54 minutes, and whose pop structures undergo cathartic transformations seemingly out of nowhere, I immediately was impressed by the album’s bombastic moments, but did not feel any particular urge to spin it again. Only a few years later, after having played various tracks from time to time, did I begin to make sense of the intricate tapestry of sound that had been woven. Significant things, like the immaculately fluid and layered guitar work, or the shifting tempos which range from lovely and calming to chaotic and tempestuous, finally began making sense to my ears.
Perhaps the chief obstacle standing in the way to my enjoyment was that I am not a musician. If you happen to be a guitarist, try to replicate any one-minute portion of this album. These songs are so difficult to decipher because there's rarely ever just one or two guitars being played. Instead, the band has stacked guitar track upon guitar track, yet it never sounds like cluttered noise. Only through repeated listens can you understand how intricately the guitars harmonize. Every note makes perfect sense, arrives at the perfect time.
The cello plays a major role on six of the eight tracks, while synths, violins, the Mellotron and various other instruments that I cannot identify are used throughout this album. The mixing and production of Perfect from Now On highlights the foreignness of these instruments, positively affecting them and enhancing their sonic presence. A perfect example of this is the cello solo featured near the middle of “I Would Hurt A Fly,” which shifts the tone of the song from jittery rock to haunting chamber pop--before giving way to a distorted guitar solo and propulsive drumming that close out the song in a rocking way. These three moods are seamlessly evoked within just one track.
“Stop the Show,” another masterpiece of metamorphosis, begins with an eerie atmosphere fleshed out by textures of cello, reverb and Moog synths. A third of the way through, tension starts building and you realize that the song is veering towards a climax. Then chugging guitars gradually come into the forefront and segue into a bouncy, reggae-tinged rhythm as the song’s catchy verses begin. Then singer Doug Martsch’s vocals become more intense and lead into a short instrumental segue. Then there is a brief return to the chugging guitars before shuffling drums give way to a Middle Eastern sound, beautifully evoked through layered guitar tracks. And just before the song ends, the initial melody is repeated. While each track could have its own play-by-play, I hope that this gives you a general idea of the particular kind of experience that Perfect from Now On provides.
Like me, you will probably enjoy this album on your first listen. Hell, you may even love it from the start. You will not, however, immediately understand or appreciate what an absolute landmark of musical accomplishment Perfect From Now On is until you've listened to it a dozen times over. Great music should always be about discoveries, and every time I listen to this album, I discover something new.