No one’s ever had a career like the North Carolina indie-pop punks, who’ve just released the fourth great album of their second act era
Here’s, as the kids say, a take: Superchunk’s reunion period, which has now lasted 12 years and is only a couple more from outlasting their original run, squashes their 1989-2001 tenure like a bug.
Every great song the beloved indie-punks/legendary label owners concocted in the 90s — in descending order: “Slack Motherfucker,” “Watery Hands,” “For Tension,” “Hyper Enough” — came with an uneven album attached. But after taking the 2000s off and becoming far less prolific, they released just three albums in the 2010s, all of which are fantastic and all of which solve their biggest former obstacles: Songwriting and melody.
Album: Wild Loneliness
Label: Merge Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Rather than progressing from Archers of Loaf-style semi-noise their Chapel Hill peers were once known for, Mac MacCaughan and his bandmates proceed from where classics he and Laura Balance’s Merge released themselves, by Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Magnetic Fields, and the Mountain Goats left off. Every single song on Majesty Shredding, I Hate Music, and What a Time to Be Alive revealed itself to be a distinct, unmistakable tune, which is no small feat for an outmoded rock band of people in their 50s who rarely strayed from the guitar-bass-drums trinity.
They also borrowed liberally from the New Pornographers, another band of elder statesmen and women who couldn’t shape a poor tune if they tried, whose richly layered harmonies cast more than a small shadow on great power-pop tunes like “Breaking Down” and “Fractures in Plaster.” But nothing tamed Jim Wilbur or Jon Wurster’s punk edge, and thrashers like “Staying Home,” “Learned to Surf” and virtually all of the Trump-inflamed Alive gave No Pocky for Kitty a run for its money just as tender anthems like “Trees of Barcelona” crushed “Driveway to Driveway.”
Their fourth straight great album, Wild Loneliness, is finally making people notice how unprecedented this second act is, and in contrast to Alive it’s entirely on the tender-anthem end of the Superchunk spectrum. For one thing, it tears down the g-b-d format with close-miked acoustic plucks, orchestration and horn sections; too bad they already released an inferior album called Here’s Where the Strings Come In. And while they called in favors last time from Stephin Merritt and Waxahatchee, guests here include Sharon Van Etten and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills.
Having emptied their Trumpocalypse rage three years ago, the Superchunk of 2022 pivots to richly harmonized, black-humored jangle-pop songs like the Covid lament “Endless Summer” (as in, “I’m not ready for a…”) and the wonderful Van Etten duet “If You’re Not Dark” (as in, “…at least in some little part / What are you on / And can I have some?”) that closes. The pandemic looms over the pleading “Connection” and the paranoid “Highly Suspect” just the same. Since their best power-pop was almost more spirited than defeated, it’s not quite as spirited as even the death-defying I Hate Music, but in 2022 the band has few equals as melodist-harmonists, and they flaunt it on tunes like the piano-flecked “On the Floor,” which screams Elvis Costello, and the saxed-up title track, which could’ve been charted by Jens Lekman. Some of these tunes even experiment with the occasional jazz chord and take paths more Steely Dan than R.E.M., honestly.
But R.E.M. is the model nonetheless, and on Wild Loneliness, Superchunk envision an alternate timeline where the Athens giants took off from “World Leader Pretend” or “Ignoreland” with more heart and humor than vitriol and esoterica, combined with the lush arrangements on Out of Time rather than the murky electronics and charming gobbledegook they went out singing.
Superchunk open doors and windows without letting their punk energy blow out. They don’t age gracefully so much as forcefully, toughening up chamber-pop and adding clarity and purpose to their own catalogue like no other bands from their heyday.
Here’s to never shutting up.
VIDEO: Superchunk “This Night” (Lyric Video)
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