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SPIN Essentials

Superchunk’s Sobering, Electrifying ‘I Hate Music’ Might Just Save Your Life

Superchunk, together through life / Photo by Jason Arthurs
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 20, 2013
Label: Merge

Death is everywhere on I Hate Music, Superchunk’s 10th studio album. Sidling right beside us, doing air-guitar windmills on his scythe, from album opener “Overflows” (where “dead” is the third word frontman Mac McCaughan sings) all the way to bittersweet-ever-after closer “What Can We Do.” This is a record of grief, bristling with the anguish of what it means to survive, to re-evaluate your life after (someone else’s) death: “Everything is different / Everything is the same.” (The record is partially inspired by longtime band/family friend Dave Doernberg, who died of cancer in March 2012.)

As if that wasn’t quite brutal enough, McCaughan also dredges up a rhetorical question from that emotional swampland of punk-after-35: What does music mean in the face of mortality? “I hate music / What is it worth?” goes the opening salvo to “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo.” “Can’t bring anyone back to this earth.” It’s a line that pulls you up short — after decades of insisting this song or that album “saved your life,” you’re suddenly confronted with the fact that it actually won’t. It can’t.

It’s a line that leaves you embarrassed in your vulnerability; to have ever asserted otherwise seems like a denial of life’s terms. When you abandon that youthful period when your whole existence is tied up in, and affirmed by, mere pieces of music, when the more tangible and mortal aspects of living start to catch up with you, when you have to cede that spiritual real estate to the pressing concerns of grown-up responsibilities — how do you orient yourself? How do you find yourself in the world without the person who helped you understand the world? The small god who lives in this beat, that solo, the chest-beating howl of some puerile punk… Is that the same god we curse out and bargain with to try and keep the people we love on this earth, and to keep ourselves on it as well?

I Hate Music is crushing in its poignancy, with a too-keen sense of what this whole mess adds up to. The album wavers between being dwarfed by the big picture and reveling in the micro-cinematic details of a world in motion — “Put up your feet on the dash.” McCaughan is clearly doing the math. Superchunk acknowledges music’s power to relieve us from quotidian, city-bus-shit-job-homework-dishes misery, blessing us with meaningful distraction. It can distract us from our mourning, too, though that’s all it can do; grief and music distort reality as much as they cut through the bullshit of it all. “It’s Everything” b/w “It’s Nothing.”

Though I Hate Music, title aside, prefers the It’s Everything side of that equation, this is a heavier orbit than the usual “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old” steez of post-punk fortysomethings singing of their disenfranchisement. Chalk it up to the liberation of middle age — or the certainty of an audience that has held fast (and aged with them) — but the North Carolina quartet don’t need to dazzle, feel no compulsion to keep it light. On their second album since ending a nine-year hiatus with 2010’s similarly revitalized Majesty Shredding, Superchunk clearly trust their music to hold up under all the heaviness of life’s big questions, and trust us to hold up, too.

All that frustration and anger energizes songs like “Staying Home,” wherein the Hüsker Dü echoes that have trailed McCaughan since 1991’s “Cast Iron” have never been louder — the last thing you expect 10 albums in are panting punks breaknecking like it’s a new Land Speed Record or bust. Ironically, it’s an anthem about not going out — the ultimate geezer cop-out — set to hardcore, the very sound of youthful vigor. Out of step, indeed. Other songs sit in awe of death, alive in the fresh hell of it, McCaughan’s eager-teen squeak still stretching toward those high notes. His voice is full of love and restless sadness, which tells as much of a story as the lyrics, a palpable yearning atop heartbreaking lines like “Oh, what I’d do / To waste an afternoon with you.”

It’s fortunate that Superchunk have stuck around long enough (nearly 25 years!) to do this album; it’s a perfect bookend to their debut 7-inch “Slack Motherfucker,” which wooed us with its youthful indignation way back in 1990. Now, less shy about their place in the world and shot through with adult resignation, the band’s anthems play as a sort of mortality blues. But with I Hate Music, Superchunk prove that we were weren’t wrong to believe.