Happy 20th Anniversary to Built to Spill’s fourth studio album Keep It Like a Secret, originally released February 2, 1999.
In the last decade or so, to describe any album or sound as “indie” has lost all credentials. Such a claim elicits shrugged expressions suggesting some more clarification—“indie, what?” There’s indie-electronic, lo-fi indie, indie pop, indie-synth, etc. However, when I think of what it means to be “indie rock” at its core, I think it’s traditionally any melodic sound with instrumentation that is simple, but textured. It utilizes an easy, original guitar riff, with another guitar riff layered in to add complexity. A simple base and an infectious drum beat. All of this driven by an underlying melody, soft vocals, and excessively introspective lyrics that spark an emotion or feeling.
It’s based on this definition that I’m comfortable stating that Built to Spill’s Keep It Like a Secret, which came out twenty years ago, is most simply put, a solid and seminal, indie rock album.
Formed in the early ‘90s in Boise, Idaho, Built to Spill were a driving force behind a now very definitive sound and style associated with the Pacific Northwest. It is there that music exists on a parallel between jolted, twee-inflected jams and powerfully emotional and loudly-rock sounds. Which, if you’ve ever been to the Pacific Northwest, seems to mirror its topography accurately.
I grew up in a small college town in Oregon, and it was there where I first discovered Built to Spill. I distinctly remember walking into the only “record” store my town had to offer and coming across the album in a discounted CD bin. I was intrigued by the artwork and remembered hearing the band name in passing. I stared at it for a moment, before the older man behind the counter said I had to get it. This was 2008, already nearly ten years after Keep It Like a Secret’s initial release.
Fast-forward to 2019, and I am now an adult living in Austin, Texas, and this album is still one of my favorites of all time and still, with every listen, can transport me back to my small hometown and evoke a sense of nostalgia for the anxiety-ridden teenage me, driving the outskirts of town, getting lost in the shuffle of tall trees and swerving hillside roads.
I include this anecdote because I think it’s important to note that Built to Spill, in the span of their discography, have captured the sort of inner monologue and self-reflection that comes from living in a place that consists of unsullied mountain ranges, cold and usually wet weather, and infinite landscape. It’s hard not to think a lot when you live in places like this.
Keep It Like a Secret is the band’s fourth studio album, and arguably their best and most authentic. By this point, they had already established their ability and titles as bona fide quick-witted pop songwriters, notably in their 1994 album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, and had secured a position of not-just-another-pop-rock band with their vision behind 1997’s Perfect From Now On. It’s in Keep It Like a Secret where the band combines the two strengths and deliver a shining moment.
From the album’s opening track “The Plan,” we as listeners are intensely dropped into the record as though free-falling from the side of a mountain and as the album continues, into a safe and graceful landing. “The Plan” is a brisk and well-constructed anthem, complete with a solo that would make any mid ‘90s guitarist green with envy. Its second track and first single “Center of the Universe” stirs up comparisons to bands like XTC and The The, with its unorthodox drum patterns. However, it’s the now-classic indie staple “Carry the Zero,” where the band solidified their spot as a defining indie-rock band.
“Carry the Zero” is downright beautiful. It combines the sort of ethereal discordant feedback style of dream pop (think Cocteau Twins-esque guitars and melody) with much more communicative and eloquent lyrics. It sings, “Count your blemishes / You can’t / They’re all gone / I can’t see your response / Putting Them Back On,” anchoring on the feeling of being a “zero,” a “nobody.” It sings about not liking yourself, finding your faults, and ultimately being too concerned about what everyone else is thinking about you and vice versa and feeling silly about that: “You have become / What You thought was dumb / A fraction of the sum.” Whether you were a teenager growing up in the Pacific Northwest or an adult living in the south, it’s a universal feeling of trying to come to terms with being your authentic self and the fragility of relationships when everyone seemingly wears guises.
Amidst the propelling intensity of the guitar, the album could have stopped shining there, complete with an anthemic ‘90s guitar rock song, however, as we continue, the rest of the album unfolds. “Time Trap” is a layered mid-tempo mantra, “Temporarily Blind” could compete with “Carry the Zero” as being the band’s most gorgeous piece of music ever recorded. “Broken Chairs” is the album’s more aggressive and notably underrated track, with “Else” being arguably the most Built to Spill song ever.
“Else” is the seventh track on Keep It Like a Secret, a hidden gem, lost in the shuffle. It sings, “Best not talk too loud / You’re not as smart as you require of them,” as frontman Doug Martsch showcases his vulnerable and insecure storytelling, suggesting to us, there will always be someone better, smarter, so why bother speaking at all? It continues, “Your body breaks / Your needs consume you forever,” a raw and genuine account of how that feeling of being insecure, uncomfortable, and in desperation to build intimate connections with people will follow us forever and wherever we go.
Keep It Like a Secret is the pinnacle of all things Built to Spill and indie-rock in its truest form. It’s a culmination of righteous guitar riffs, subversive melodies and heavy-hearted emotive lyricism. It reminds us that no matter how old we get, how confident we may appear outwardly, we’re all still the anxious and angsty teenagers on the inside.