Superchunk returns with a thoughtful political album

Illustration courtesy of Creative Commons

By Brendan Nagle

As far as consistency goes, not many ’90s bands can rival Superchunk. Most of their contemporaries called it quits years ago, and of the ones that didn’t, few have released quality music post-2000. Yet somehow, nearly 30 years since they formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the legendary indie rockers are still in top form, producing music that worthy continuation of their earlier work.

To be called consistent often feels like a backhanded compliment for musicians; the implication being that the band is fine, but largely uninteresting. In Superchunk’s case, consistency should not be confused for banality. All 11 of their studio albums are uniquely excellent, and despite the group’s interest in staying within the confines of guitar-based rock music, each album has its own distinct personality. The most obvious example is 1994’s “Foolish” — famously the product of a breakup between songwriter Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance — which, in its heartbroken despondency, demonstrated a fragility that was untapped in the rousing punk of their previous albums. But from their bracing self-titled debut to 2013’s “I Hate Music,” which grapples with the death of a loved one, Superchunk has always been dynamic, somehow sustaining the youthful energy that defined their early success. To listen to their catalog is to hear a band growing up, snotty punk kids blossoming into mature — but no less inspired — adults.

On their new album “What a time to Be Alive,” Superchunk maintains the paradoxical dichotomy between consistency and variety that has marked their career. Sonically they are as alive as ever. Churning out more robust and catchy rock tunes, Superchunk still makes a thematic leap forward. McCaughan’s lyrical style has always been personal, sometimes indecipherably so. He has explored love, heartbreak, friendship and death with an intimacy that can make one nostalgic for a memory they have not lived. Now he has turned his sights to a topic left untouched for the last 30 years: politics. Although the Trump administration’s footprint is all over “What A Time To Be Alive,” McCaughan’s approach is still to look inward.

The album opens with the title track, a rollicking surge of overdriven guitar that finds Superchunk at their best. “To see the rot in no disguise / Oh what a time to be alive / The scum, the shame, the fucking lies / Oh what a time to be alive,” McCaughan cries in dismay. It’s difficult not to shout along, to share in his consternation. On “Lost My Brain,” McCaughan describes his collapsed mental state post-election. The words make him sound drained, but they’re delivered with fury that’s nourished by the breakneck pace of the band. McCaughan’s outlook is just as bleak on the next track. “Break The Glass” finds him observing a broken world: “Nothing looks familiar out there / But everything’s the same / It’s just the center leaking out / While all the trees go up in flames.”

Superchunk is indebted to the overtly political hardcore punk of the ’80s, and they address it explicitly on “Reagan Youth.” The song takes us back to the summer of ’81. McCaughan ominously notes that “cable’s getting cheaper, but there’s something going on.” By the second verse the ’80s are nearly over and the heat has “all drained away.” The devastation of the Reagan era is evident: “Friends do not look fine … Either busted like a union / Or reanimated with fear.” The first half of the chorus pays homage to the influential anarcho-punk band Reagan Youth, a group whose fierce condemnation of Reagan’s conservative regime was a beacon of light, and even an educational resource, for Superchunk. But the second half questions the effectiveness of ’80s punks. “But to tell the truth,” McCaughan wails, “There was more than one Reagan Youth.” The other Reagan Youth he is referring to are those who “learn(ed) how to breathe” under his administration, i.e. the Republicans whose path was paved by Reagan. On “I Hate Music,” McCaughan asks, grief stricken, what music is worth, “if it can’t bring anyone back to this Earth.” Now these same doubts are resurfacing. What’s the value of political music if it can’t prevent Donald Trump?

“Most protest music is terrible,” McCaughan said in an interview with the New York Times, “It’s pedantic, it’s usually preaching to the choir.”

But is he not himself guilty of preaching to the choir? It’s not as if the “old men (who) won’t die too soon,” whom he calls out on “I Got Cut,” will take any notice of his songs. But McCaughan doesn’t preach so much as he unleashes his own feelings. Just like he did on “Foolish” and “I Hate Music,” McCaughan turns to song as a means to soothe his own pain, to communicate his own frustration. “What A Time To Be Alive” is an album about problems, and it does not offer any solutions. But, without doing so explicitly, McCaughan answers his own question. The value of (good) political music like Superchunk’s is in finding solidarity in times of strife. To hear an artist express the same pain, the same anger, that you feel, and to be able to feel it together with them, is powerful. “What A Time To Be Alive” is proof that, when done right, political music can still matter in the Trump era.

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