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.
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.