Superchunk - I Hate Music

Superchunk don’t hate music. We know this. The North Carolina band have been making it for more than two decades, and the music that they’ve made has way too much joy and desperation and impossible need in it for them to have anything but the most fervent love for the stuff. And then there’s the fact that band members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, as Merge Records co-founders, get paid everytime anyone buys an Arcade Fire record, and that drummer Jon Wurster has a nice little sideline going, playing drums for anyone who could possibly ever need drums played. It would be ridiculous for them to hate music. They are, however, old enough to know that music, for all its vast and inexplicable power, cannot solve all of your problems, and it cannot heal some of the deepest aches in your heart. Before reading the press around I Hate Music, the band’s new album, I’d never heard of David Doernberg, the artist/filmmaker and friend of the band, who died of cancer last year. But his passing, his absence, absolutely shoots through the LP; it’s practically a concept album about coping with loss, or failing to cope with loss. It’s an album about reflexively looking around for your friend’s face when you walk into the bar, and then quickly realizing that you’re never going to see your friend’s face again. And the band delivers that sentiment with all the force and power and even joy that they’ve ever brought to their music — which, titles aside, suggests that there may be something to this music thing after all.

Twenty-three years ago, Superchunk climaxed “Slack Motherfucker,” their first single and their defining song, with this line: “I’m working / But I’m not working for you / Slack motherfucker!” Suffice to say: The members of Superchunk are no longer working with, or for, said motherfucker, and yet that quote — and the intensity with which McCaughan howled it — has followed the band around ever since. And that’s with good reason; it’s a great line. I’m not taking anything away from the many, many songs that McCaughan has since sung when I say that it might be his best line. But the opening line from “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” the ridiculously great lead single from I Hate Music, comes close: “I hate music! What is it worth?! / Can’t bring anyone back to this earth! / Or fill up the space between all of the notes! / But I got nothing else, so I guess here we go.” At first, I thought the line was about Mittoo, the great reggae keyboardist who died in 1990, the same year Superchunk dropped “Slack Motherfucker.” But no, it’s about the memories of wheeling down the road with your friends, finding new music, feeling alive, and then realizing that those memories might be all you have. It’s a fast, fun, catchy-as-fuck, life-affirming song, and it’s also just impossibly sad.

There’s a lot of that on I Hate Music. McCaughan has always been great at writing conversational, empathetic dude-in-a-bar lyrics while, at the same time, keeping his cards close enough that you’re never sure exactly what he’s singing about. So I don’t know how many of these songs are about Doernberg, how many of them merely glancingly deal with the hangover of his loss, and how many of them don’t have anything at all to do with him. I have my suspicions, though — or, more to the point, I have the lyrics that remind me the most of friends who I’ve lost, of the scraps of memory that are all I have left of them. I don’t know if Doernberg was one of the band’s best friends or not, and it kind of doesn’t matter. Even if you just lose a loose acquaintance, it’s easy to fall into a funk about it, to think about that person all time, to get weird about it. And Superchunk get weird in some beautiful, relatable ways here.

“Do you like this place? Do you like this sound? Do you like this taste? Oh yeah, you’re not around,” sings McCaughan on opening track “Overflows,” which qualifies as a contemplative Superchunk song because its pummel is slightly slower than usual and because there’s a bit of acoustic guitar in there. That same sense of longing is there on “Your Theme,” but it’s rendered in more fired-up terms: “Oh what I’d do to waste an afternoon with you / Eating obscure, looking at girls, shopping for jeans / Learning how to be and not to seem / Singing your theme, yeah!” And then he launches into this gloriously catchy “ba ba-dup bup ba!” chorus, and that chorus becomes the whole point of the song; it’s someone’s theme, after all. Meanwhile, “Trees Of Barcelona” is just a fun and happy song about running through Barcelona after a big music festival lets out — “The river of a festival crowd emptied out into the early morning / Smiling and tired, profiling and wired, drunk and swarming” — and in this context, it scans as sad because who knows, maybe their dead friend was with them that day.

Superchunk were never an emo band, but they always made heart-on-sleeve pogo-punk songs that resonated in that world; the young Get Up Kids practically used their singles as songwriting how-to books. They’ve always dealt with big themes and overwhelming feelings; it’s what they do. But I don’t know if any of their records have ever been this forthright about love and death and the combination of the two. And it’s also something that they’re still playing with all the sincere vigor that they’ve always had. Musically, this is a Superchunk album, and that is a very good thing. The band never broke up, but they did take a break from making albums for nine years. They came back with 2010′s Majesty Shredding, which sort of belongs to a new and exciting category: Reunion albums that are as vital and great as anything the band ever did. And I Hate Music hits its marks even harder than Majesty Shredding — harder, maybe, than any of the band’s albums since 1994′s Foolish. This is meat-and-potatoes pogo-punk, but done with verve and passion and enough poetic license that the songs don’t necessary have pop-song power. Superchunk do this thing where the verses seen to be fighting against the current of the song, and then the choruses suddenly and ecstatically lurch back into the flow. And every time they hit one of those choruses, it feels like confetti exploding in your brain. And maybe those choruses won’t bring your dead friends back, but it’s pretty fucking impossible to hate music when they’re on.

I Hate Music is out now on Merge. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Earl Sweatshirt’s masterfully wordy, densely thoughtful Doris.
• Ty Segall’s acoustic-psychedelic move Sleeper.
• A$AP Ferg’s outrageously energetic fashion-rap debut Trap Lord.
• No Age’s dreamy but theoretical art-punk record An Object.
• Julia Holter’s hazy, ephemeral, musical-inspired Loud City Song.
• Diarrhea Planet’s dizzily dumb-fun guitar-attack I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams.
• Pure Bathing Culture’s breezy, dramatic Moon Tides.
• Zola Jesus’s collection of string-quartet reworkings Versions.
• Watain’s absolutely evil snarl/gargle black metal attack The Wild Hunt.
• Mark Kozelek & Desertshore’s self-titled album together.
• Braids’ skittery, haunted Flourish // Perish.
• Porcelain Raft’s dazed, formless synthpopper Permanent Signal.
• Crocodiles’ fuzzily psychedelic Crimes Of Passion.
• White Hills’ hypnotic space-rocker So You Are… So You’ll Be.
• Bent Shapes’ jangled DIY debut Feels Weird.
• Laura Veirs’ autumnal singer-songwriter album Warp And Weft.
• Butter The Children’s raw-shoegaze True Crime EP.
• Mountain Man/Megafaun side project Sylvan Esso’s Hey Mami/Play It Right EP.

Comments (36)
  1. The NPR Music app is loaded with new album preview streams right now, I haven’t had a chance to fully take everything in, but…

    Ty Segall – Like what I have heard so far
    No Age – Not that into is through about 1 1/2 listens. I’ve always found No Age to be pretty difficult so I was planning to keep trying. I was almost relieved by the Pitchfork review from this morning, like now maybe I don’t have to listen to this thing over and over until I like it.
    King Krule – seems like it might be worth while
    Franz Ferdinand – seems fun
    Neko Case – good lord what a gorgeous album. AOTW front runner for whenever it comes out.
    Superchunk – haven’t heard it yet but I’ll listen cause stereogum tells me so

    There are a bunch more too, it’s a great app. Pretty much the only way I know of to stream unreleased albums on a mobile device.

    • NPR always in the thick of it. Just yesterday alone they allowed me to mow my lawn to Volcano Choirs and Neko’s advance streams, and both albums really blew me away…like albums that will infinitely grow on you with repeat listens. I know there will be enough said about both (or at the least Vernon’s) but with lull we’ve had musically over the past month or so, these two shine even brighter. Their cinematic vibe goes beyond 16:9.

      But I digress, and don’t want to steal your thunder, Tom. Superchunk is the perfect Stereogum pick, this week. God bless our bands of the 90′s. Their endurance is as surprising as it is endearing.

    • So if Pitchfork gave it a 9 you would force yourself to listen to it. Does this mean Pitchfork is now to hipsters what Oprah was to affluent housewives?

      • I don’t have time to listen to everything that comes out, so sometimes I use ratings as a guide for what to listen to. Pitchfork isn’t the only one, but it’s a main one. And if they gave it a 9, yeah I would have forced myself to listen to it several more times, but I would have done the same if stereogum gave it aotw or if Raptor Jesus or some other commenter told me I was fucking up and I really needed to give it another listen. The fact that I’m a fan of No Age’s previous work also plays a pretty major role. If it was a band I wasn’t a fan of already I would have been less likely to give it multiple listens based on a positive Pitchfork rating.

        Sorry if I’m coming off as defensive, just trying to explain myself. Not taking your comment personally. Your Pitchfork/Oprah line was solid, I’d give is a 7.8.

    • Pitchfork’s relationship with No Age definitely took an odd turn today.

      The review for “An Object” even spells out in the first paragraph all the aspects of the band that p4k latched on to a mere five years ago. They ranked “Weirdo Rippers” high on their 2007 year end list. They gave a deserved high score to “Nouns” and even placed it as their 3rd favorite record of 2008 (also a deserved placement).

      I disagreed with their high praise of “Everything in Between”, especially when their year end list came out placing it one spot ABOVE Flying Lotus’ “Cosmogramma”, something I still can’t fully comprehend. On EiB they seemed to have moved farthest away from the “dream-punk” sound (term taken from today’s review) they defined on “Weirdo Rippers” (an album I revisited last night and remembered how phenomenal it is [see also that Backtrack on the 'Gum from a month or so back])

      But now this: a 6.2 for their new album. An album that I feel moves back toward that No Age sound I fell in love with on “Nouns” and “Weirdo Rippers”. One of my favorite parts, and what I consider to be its strength, is Its brief run time. Consider this: one of my favorite albums from last year (Swans – “The Seer”) had a song that was longer than this entire album. That makes me think two different things:

      (A) I need to listen to “The Seer” again

      (B) “An Object” should probably be digested as one solid entity instead of a quick collection of songs

      As a huge fan of No Age, I feel this album is a breath of fresh air. I feel they pushed the punk aspects of their band as far as they’d go with “Everything in Between” so the sound of them reeling it back on “An Object” is welcome. I feel the first and last tracks on “An Object” are some of my favorite No Age songs to date. The rest of the album goes back and forth from drifting melodies (“An Impression” / “My Hands, Birch and Steel”) and head-knodding, fist-pumping bangers (“Lock Box” / “Circling with Dizzy”). The feeling I get listening to “An Object” is more similar to “Weirdo Rippers” and “Nouns” that I felt was absent from the more streamlined “Everything in Between”.

      So it’s a bit confusing to see Pitchfork pull their Ian Cohen card and straight pan it outright. I think there is a lot to love on the new album and someone shouldn’t avoid it simply because of a 6.2 rating. However, in plb’s case (who finds No Age difficult), I don’t think “An Object” wouldn’t do much to win you over if “Nouns” and “Weirdo Rippers” didn’t. But on the flip side, I could see somebody learning about No Age for the first time with “An Object” and then being pleasantly surprised to discover their back catalogue, since I feel this new album is a better representation of the music they’ve made before its release.

      tl;dr An Opinion. An Opinion! An Opinion, An Opinion? “An Opinion”

      • I loved Nouns, it took my a loooooong time to get into it though. That’s what I meant by difficult, so I wasn’t ready to dismiss “An Object” until I saw the review on Pitchfork today and thought maybe I wasn’t missing anything.

        I’ll give it a few more chances on your recommendation, and also to spite Cory Tendering.

      • opinions are like assholes. everyone’s got one and they all stink. except for the ones that smell like roses

  2. I thought after the Daft Punk/Deerhunter/Vampire Weekend/Kanye West explosion in the spring, there’d be a lot of downtime before other releases blew me away as much as those did. But the music being released this week/the next couple of weeks is overwhelming!

    Ty Segall’s album is my pick of the week, although Doris and Trap Lord are both worth a listen. I agree that the Franz record is extremely fun, still trying to decide where it fits in 2013. And I’m waiting on that Premature Evaluation of the Volcano Choir album. It’s one of my favorites of the year.

  3. I’m not that into rock music, even though I really enjoy the No Age album from this week (though I would place that more among an outsider purview due to its excellent use of texture and shifting of traditional notions of rock instruments to inhabit other roles – bass as melody, bass as percussion, guitar feedback as strings, etc) my favorite of this week – and top 5 of the year – is Loud City Song, it’s just a beautiful album that focuses all of Julia’s wily avant-garde tendencies into a cohesive experience.

  4. No mention of Typhoon’s new album?

  5. This has been an amazing week. Right now I’m cycling through Volcano Choir’s Repave, Doris, King Krule, Julia Holter, and this album, it’s pretty overwhelming because other than Holter’s new one (which hasnt really clicked with me yet) all of these albums are solid from top to bottom.

  6. It might be bold but I Hate Music is safely in my top 10 of the year. A really excellent write up. The line about entering a bar looking for your friend’s face but never seeing it really captures what this record is all about.

    • Also, its interesting to note that pretty much none of the comments in this thread are about how awesome this Superchunk record is.

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  8. I’ve never given a Superchunk album a good, hard listen until this one. Perhaps, to me, their large discography seems overwhelming and I wouldn’t know where to begin. So, I guess it’s fitting I started with “I Hate Music” and boy am I glad I did.

    I was trying to figure out why this album has been getting so much praise. There’s nothing complicated or intricate about this record, and it certainly doesn’t take a few listens to understand it. It’s damn catchy, but there are a lot of catchy records out there that don’t receive “Album of the Week” or “SPIN Essential” nods. I think the main reason this album is so immediately good is the heart and energy you can tangibly feel from it. It’s the youthful spirit that this album embodies, despite coming from a band that’s been around for 20 years or so. I look at a band like The Replacements as an example of this. Paul Westerberg didn’t have the greatest of voices in the traditional sense, but the way he delivered his message in every song forced you to believe everything he was saying. It was so heartfelt and genuine, and that’s the same energy and spirit I get from “I Hate Music”. This album is a tight ball of energy we all needed to get through these last dog days of summer. Well done, Superchunk.

  9. This is the most beauty-and-life-affirming example of a band who is excellent and consistent and just never bad and everyone still loves them for it. There’s no debate about if it’s time for them to change it up or pack it in; there’s no backlash because anything you could call “hype” is just a phenomenal band getting what they deserve. Here’s to a dozen more albums.

  10. after listening to this I want to get more into superchunk but I don’t know where to start,
    any fans have any recomendations?

    • Foolish is IMO their best. I started with No Pocky for Kitty in high school, a very good early album. Here’s Where the Strings Come In I devoured for a couple years in college, just played it to death. I’m a superfan for life so take some of this with a grain of salt, but Foolish is one of my all time faves. My friends and I have been planning for years to cover it from start to finish on April Fool’s Day, looking like it might actually happen in 2014!

    • you can probably skip the s/t debut, but after that it’s all gold. if you like this new one, probably go for the previous album ‘Majesty Shredding’ next.

    • Foolish is my favorite too. But just start from the beginning. Hearing it for the first time will be a joy and a pleasure

  11. I have to admit, I wish Julia Holter was Album Of The Week. Her last one didn’t really do it for me, because even though I thought it was a strong listen and truly remarkable, it belonged to those albums I admired more than loved.

    But Loud City Music… oh my! I’m still floored by the texture it has. Some beautiful stuff, and if you excuse my excitement here, in that sense you can almost feel the weight of the instrument, it has space, it music that takes room. It’s an album I feel has a whole inner life of its own. I’m so impressed and moved by Holter’s concept and growth. It’s played to gorgeous effect and I feel it’s one of the big memorable albums of the year.

  12. A lot of music to get excited about. Super excited about this new King Krule album. I loved “Portrait in Black and Blue” from the EP a little while back. Really digging his music. It’s very original and it sounds completely timeless.

  13. There are no bands out there like Superchunk. What bands have done it right for 20 or so years, taken a 10 year break and then come back fresher than ever? The Portastatic albums in between have been amazing too! These guys are heroes, musically….and I don’t even like to speak in superlatives. This album is fukkin great

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