Album Of The Week: Superchunk What A Time To Be Alive
There’s a song on What A Time To Be Alive, the new album from North Carolina indie originators Superchunk, that’s called “Reagan Youth,” named after the old New York hardcore band. Forming in 1980, Reagan Youth predated their hometown’s chugging tough-guy hardcore scene. Instead, they were politically fired-up kids. They were fast and snotty and committed, a band of teenagers fueled by the ruin they saw enveloping the United States in the early ’80s. (Imagine a band calling itself Trump Youth today. Wouldn’t happen.) “Reagan Youth” is a song about hearing Reagan Youth as a suburban kid, back when the music was new: “95 degrees and it’s summer ’81 / Window unit suffocation, steam out on the lawn.” The song itself is fast and snotty and committed. It would be one thing to say that Superchunk, a band since 1989, still sound as ferocious on “Reagan Youth” as they always have. But “Reagan Youth” goes beyond that. “Reagan Youth” doesn’t just sound as ferocious as what you’ll find on old Superchunk records. “Reagan Youth” sounds as ferocious as what you’ll find on old Reagan Youth records. Just about everything on What A Time To Be Alive sounds like that.
Every Superchunk album seems like it could be the last Superchunk album. For a while, even the band probably thought that’s what was happening; in the years since 2000’s underrated Here’s To Shutting Up and 2009’s splenetic revival Majesty Shredding, the band only got together every so often for one-off gigs. Co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance co-founded Merge Records, one of the greatest and most venerable institutions in American indie rock, and they could presumably retire on that Neon Bible money. (Ballance, meanwhile, has had to quit touring because of tinnitus issues.) Drummer Jon Wurster plays in a whole pile of different bands, including the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould’s trio, and he moonlights as an alt-comedy legend. I’m pretty sure guitarist Jim Wilbur has some kind of civilian job, though I don’t know what it is. Point is: Nearly 30 years after Superchunk came into being, the four members of the band are all adults with fulfilling lives and no real need to travel around the country, playing pummeling and adenoidal pop-punk anthems to their faithful. So when they get back together, it’s because they have something to say. And What A Time To Be Alive is an album from some people who have some things to say.
Superchunk’s music has always been granular and personal. The band’s best-known song is the one that rants against an asshole boss, and their best-loved album is the one that chronicles the breakup between McCaughan and Ballance. I Hate Music, the band’s last album, was a meditation on aging and music and futility, albeit one delivered at punk-rock velocities. So it really says something that Superchunk, at this late date, have finally given us their state-of-the-world album. The title of What A Time To Be Alive doesn’t come from the Drake/Future collab of the same name; McCaughan says that he’d never heard of that album when he named the Superchunk one. Instead, it’s a big, sweeping, all-purpose what the fuck. What A Time is a concept album about looking around, seeing how fucked up and broken the entire world is in 2018, and kicking out at it with righteous and useless rage.
“The scum, the shame, the fucking lies / Oh what a time to be alive,” McCaughan howls on the album-opening title track, before lambasting the old men who are “clinging to the myth that [they] were cheated” and who “want to take us all the way back.” Elsewhere, McCaughan snarls about “all these old men won’t die too soon / Flesh balloons, still waving their arms around.” For a 50-year-old Southern white guy who, if he isn’t rich, is at the very least living comfortably, that’s a hell of a phrase. But McCaughan knows a problem when he sees one, and he’s in accusatory mode on What A Time. On one song: “Fade like vapors, you actual traitors to the ones you say you love.” On another: “You broke the world that you’re not long for / You broke the world we’re living in.” On “All For You,” McCaughan just demands “fight me, oh fight me” over and over, and you can hear the urgent need to turn all that anger into physical release.
There’s anxiety amidst all that anger, too. McCaughan’s not just concerned with the ways that aging rich guys are looting whatever’s left of the world. He’s also concerned about the way all that looms over the rest of our collective consciousness. He sings again and again about how none of us are sleeping right, evoking the image of those of us who, in the middle of the night, find ourselves sleepless and reaching for our phones. McCaughan doesn’t judge; he knows he’s been doing the same thing, too: “I surrendered to the flow of shit / I gave up all my sleep / I didn’t learn anything from it / And I lost count of all the sheep.” He sees that tendency all around him, in everyone: “Everyone is acting normal / But no one’s sleeping through the night / There’s a glow under the nightstand / It’s a sickly kind of light.”
But along with all that anger and anxiety, Superchunk find catharsis, too. It’s not there in the lyrics; McCaughan never offers any solutions. (What would a solution even look like?) Instead, all the joy in What A Time is in the sound of this band playing together. Superchunk have simply never sounded better than they do on this album. The whole thing blasts by in a headlong 32-minute rush. And while Superchunk have always played around with ideas of beauty — one album was called, only half-ironically, Here’s Where The Strings Come In — they leave that alone almost entirely on What A Time. Closing track “Black Thread” slows things down a bit and lets some sunlight shine in. The rest of the time, the band rockets relentlessly from hook to hook, blazing and shining.
The band draws in some help from indie contemporaries like David Bazan and Stephin Merritt and from younger peers like Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield and a Giant Dog’s Sabrina Ellis, all of whom contribute backing vocals. You can’t exactly pick out their contributions most of the time, but there’s still a sense of community at work, an idea that it’ll take all of us working together to outlive the assholes. Reagan Youth didn’t stay around for long enough to give that idea. None of their peers did, either. But Superchunk have proven that they burn eternal. Thirty years in, they’re still giving us some of their best music.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Car Seat Headrest’s re-recorded and reimagined version of 2011’s Twin Fantasy.
• Belle And Sebastian’s three-EP collection How To Solve Our Human Problems.
• American Nightmare’s self-titled rockin’ hardcore return.
• U.S. Girls’ poignantly clever In A Poem Unlimited.
• American Pleasure Club’s fuzzy pastiche A Whole Fucking Lifetime Of This.
• Ought’s twitchy post-punk meditation Room Inside The World.
• XL founder Richard Russell’s all-collabs solo debut Everything Is Recorded.
• Shearwater/Cross Record team-up Loma’s self-titled debut.
• Johanna Warren’s mesmeric, insular Gemini II.
• Dabrye’s guest-heavy beat odyssey Three/Three.
• Pianos Become The Teeth’s moody, inward-looking post-hardcore LP Wait For Love.
• Fischerspooner’s gleaming club opus Sir.
• Towkio’s restlessly energetic rap debut WWW.
• Poliça and s t a r g a z e’s collaborative album Music For The Long Emergency.
• Born Ruffians’ weathered indie rocker Uncle, Duke & The Chief.
• Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet’s Hurricane Sandy-inspired Landfall.
• Harakiri For The Sky’s atmospheric black metaller Arson.
• Alva Nota and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s full-length collaboration.
• Wild Beasts’ live-album goodbye Last Night All My Dreams Came True.
• Windhand and Satan’s Satyrs’ split.
• Ride’s Tomorrow’s Shore EP.