You tend to hear much of the past three decades in independent rock—or college rock, to use a term largely out of fashion—when listening to Superchunk. Growing up alongside the likes of Pavement and Built to Spill, Superchunk has long toyed with exuberantly high-speed pop-punk, choppy and aggressive rhythms, and, more recently, exquisite melodies. Here, the band looks to harder-edged sounds of its formative years—going so far as name-checking the harsh political punk of 80s act Reagan Youth. The results bound from a relatively quiet vinyl pressing that, for better or worse, fittingly echoes the put-together albeit flat, unbalanced sonics on many albums made by the group’s college-rock predecessors.
While the music community often leans left, an uptick in topical works continues to follow in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Never overtly political, the members of Superchunk seem pushed to the edge of breaking throughout What a Time to Be Alive. The band rants with purpose. Consider this 32-minute work a safe, healthy way to blow off steam after reading or watching another frustrating news story.
The term “woke” has recently become part of the standard lexicon, implying a sort of sudden awareness to the details behind the what, how, and why of current affairs. What a Time to Be Alive, then, is Superchunk weaponized—the sound of forty- and fifty-somethings’ frustration, anger, and rebellion distilled. Imagine the record accompanying an Americanized and more topical interpretation of The World’s End, Edgar Wright’s 2013 action-comedy in which a bunch of middle-aged pals suddenly become hip to all that’s rotten in England.
It’s quite possible 2018 will not see a rock song as vicious as “I Got Cut.” Inspired, according to leader Mac McCaughan, by an image of Trump and his male peers smiling as they signed legislation that limited women’s reproductive health care, the second verse of the wailer begins with a pointed attack: “All these old men won’t die too soon.”
Welcome to Superchunk’s headspace on What a Time to Be Alive, a spirited and hook-filled snapshot of what it means to be fed up with American politics. See “Break the Glass,” on which the lyrics recruit for a revolution and Laura Balance’s bass stays on message with a determined spring. Meanwhile, McCaughan and Jim Wilbur’s ringing guitars, which shift effortlessly from punchy riffs to grown-up flourishes, aim to make political uprising sound fun. “Bad Choices” turns the focus to McCaughan, who struggles to keep his anger in check and takes solace in the fact that his lifetime of mistakes hasn’t caused harm for others. Guitars lurch like a Slinky, McCaughan’s high-pitched voice raises to a scratchy yell, and Jon Wurster’s drums alternate between chaos and meticulousness.
Superchunk has perfected such tension in its latter years. On 2013’s I Hate Music, the band grapples with growing older and pop limitations. This time around, the existentialism is widened, with McCaughan proclaiming nobody should be surprised by current events. Complacency, and its dangers, figure heavily into a number of tracks—including the upper-register alarm “All for You” and hardcore churn of “Cloud of Hate,” where McCaughan pins hope on a younger generation to turn things around. For all the loudness, muscle, and wrath on display, an underlying sense of optimism prevails. What a Time to Be Alive trumpets it’s never too late to speak out and always okay to crank up the guitars.
Last chance to change your mind...