Looking back on a bright spot of the band’s storied second act
Honorable indie-rock/pop-punk down-the-middles Superchunk kind of had an always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride thing going on in the ‘90s.
Impeccable singles: “Slack Motherfucker,” “For Tension,” “Hyper Enough,” “Watery Hands.” Like Blur, people swear these highlights come from equally great albums, but beyond these greatest hits I can’t recall a note of the rest even when said albums are playing. Not without their fun or charms and probably plenty of other tunes extractable from the smudgy, high-energy…well, blur — if you give it all your might. Not even my editor Ron’s pick hit Foolish, beyond the notably more downcast mood befitting of the album chronicling sparkplug frontman Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance’s split. I say the real gravitas was to come.
Bandmates for life, McCaughan and Ballance also stayed together in their most crucial role of all: co-founders of Merge Records, the fledgling DIY label that would go on to release among other items of note Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight, the four Arcade Fire albums people actually liked and every Mountain Goats album since 2011. Mostly everything they touch turns to gold; triple-dynamo Jon Wurster has recently graduated to concentrate on drumming for Bob Mould’s best work since Hüsker Dü and giving John Darnielle’s formerly folkie tunelets considerable ambition and heft.
It can’t be a coincidence that Superchunk’s collective output after Merge released these downright classics constitutes the greatest rock reunion of all-time, their best albums (and counting) by far. The quality jump between their hyper-enough initial run and their astonishing second act is virtually unheard-of. After the right word-of-mouth, I enjoyed 2010’s exceptionally songful Majesty Shredding as a fluke — finally tunes that rip like their eternally youthful energy! I defy Superchunk fans of any era to hear “Learned to Surf” as anything other than a band operating at their peak.
But then 2013’s anthemic I Hate Music was really about something: life and death (no, really), and its attendant dynamics simultaneously toughened up the foursome and tendered them out. Five years later, a hardcore football like “Staying Home” turned out to be merely a warm-up for What a Time to Be Alive, Superchunk’s hardest-rocking thrasher ever and the most pissed-off explicitly anti-Trump record that alternative rock could muster. Last year’s gorgeous Wild Loneliness was the flipside, a big hug from a trusted old friend who can’t actually make you feel better but can only sympathize with you. Its strategy was comfort songs with nothing comforting to say. Just hooks, harmonies, surprise sax and Steely Dan jazz chords, Mike Mills and Sharon Van Etten.
I can’t think of another trad-rock band to make better verse-chorus-verse albums in the last 13 years, or a better heir apparent to R.E.M.’s forceful jangle, who became frankly amazing almost right when the Athens bros hung it up for good. To evolve like this band has, you’d have to keep an indelible ear up-to-date and sharp, like perhaps the best A&Rs in trad-indie. I’ve always said this achievement comes from the awestruck inspiration of releasing everybody and their brother’s magnum opus, and a near-spiritual desire to step it up themselves.
Any of those four albums will make your day better, but I Hate Music, which just turned ten, is the one that feels like something special was finally happening with this band, that they were willing themselves to deserve more than respect and a sizable cult. Of course, Superchunk still isn’t necessarily much bigger now than earning respect and a sizable cult. But their four newest and best albums could yet still earn them better things, especially with Jeff Mangum retired, Spoon consigned to careerism, and Arcade Fire all but disgraced.
You can hear the change immediately on “Overflows,” which resembles not the oft-compared Get Up Kids but the New Pornographers charged with whoa-oh refrains. “Breaking Down” rockets even higher into the power-pop stratosphere with walls of pure-bliss harmonies on the chorus. “What Can We Do” is positively giddy about the six minutes it allows itself to explore the territory between a modest build and a pounding climax. It’s a fucking thrill to hear McCaughan finding new ways to make his anthems scale, like when the Hold Steady discovered E Street and Zeppelin riffs. Except he doesn’t sacrifice the horizontal to add the vertical; “Staying Home” is the most furious thing he’s ever done, and preceding it is the nihilistic “Void,” which deploys his falsetto even more spookily than “Like a Fool.”
VIDEO: Superchunk “Staying Home”
Pop-punk doesn’t sound like “FOH” (and its fan-made Lego video) or “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” anymore, if it ever did; they’re too archetypal. Now that rock has no center, they might as well occupy it. “Jackie Mittoo” is where the dispirited album title comes from, a solemn meditation on the limitations of art in the face of mortality on paper, a quick rush of pure sugar in practice. That’s Superchunk’s program these days, pleasure above all.
That’s why we get “Out of the Sun,” which 1994 Weezer would’ve killed for, and most astonishingly, “Trees of Barcelona,” a song-of-the-summer that really takes you to the fruity fragrances, ocean-splashing and unearthly bliss of playing a music festival on the other side of the planet. Plenty of songs from their last decade are among their very best, but that one might actually be it. “And the world slipped our minds,” McCaughan sings, as wistful as any frontman this century.
Maybe music “can’t bring anyone back to this earth” but in under 40 minutes Mac reminds us over and over how it makes being alive ten thousand times awesomer, one obvious reason being that if you’re alive you can sing along.
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