Review: Superchunk’s What a Time to Be Alive Captures the Strange Excitement of Constantly Being Outraged
In the last week of 2016, Superchunk frontman Mac McCaughan released a solo track, “Happy New Year (Prince Can’t Die Again),” that perfectly summed up the post-election malaise of the moment with a little gallows humor. Superchunk’s 11th album is the sound of McCaughan a year later, still mustering wit and defiance after a 2017 that was every bit as depressing as 2016, if not more so.
After the election, there was an oft-repeated and oft-derided line that the Trump presidency would be good for protest art and return punk rock to the rebellious anti-Reagan spirit of the ‘80s. In a sense, What A Time To Be Alive is tailor made for that sentiment: “Bad Choices” and the title track sound like they were bashed out immediately after reading the day’s infuriating headlines. “Reagan Youth” explicitly turns the clock back to 1981 to meditate on the dawn of another divisive Republican administration.
But Superchunk is a North Carolina quartet best known for the plucky exhilaration and caffeinated riffs of songs like “Hyper Enough.” McCaughan, who turned 50 last year, still sings with a helium yelp that’s retained an air of youthful enthusiasm even as it gets raspier with each album. So the feeling that What a Time to Be Alive conjures better than perhaps any art from the Trump era so far is the strange, uncomfortable excitement of having so much to be angry about all the time–to live through an endless news cycle of daily controversies and injustices, trying not to get too high on your own self-righteous rage.
One defining paradox of Superchunk is the contrast between their work as curators and as a band. McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance have, via their label Merge Records, overseen an increasingly varied and omnivorous vision of indie, even as Superchunk have remained dedicated to the enduring appeal of loud, fast guitar-driven punk anthems. They’re Talking Heads in the streets but The Ramones in the sheets.
Since 2010’s Majesty Shredding broke a nine-year drought, Superchunk have largely returned to their punky roots, andWhat a Time to Be Alive is their shortest and most relentlessly paced album since the early ‘90s. Their records flirt with textures – synths, strings, Jim O’Rourke production. On What a Time to Be Alive, guest vocalists illustrate the odd schism between Superchunk’s sound and their place in the contemporary indie scene. Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields appear on “Erasure,” and Dave Bazan of Pedro the Lion appears on “Cloud of Hate.” But those musicians aren’t bringing any apparent influence from their own projects to those; they’re pleasantly tuneful, functionally anonymous voices backing McCaughan on the choruses.
The way What a Time to Be Alive zooms by, there are songs you might blink and miss if McCaughan weren’t writing some of the most sharply worded lyrics of his career. The 73-second “Cloud of Hate” and the 96-second “Lost My Brain” are the two shortest originals in the Superchunk discography. But the album doesn’t slow down until rousing midtempo closer “Black Thread,” one of two songs with a touch of acoustic guitar buried under the roar of amps. McCaughan and Jim Wilbur’s solos still wail with unpredictable twists and turns, at times almost more like bagpipes than guitars. Jon Wurster is perhaps now better known as an alt-comedy celebrity thanks to his radio and podcast work with Tom Scharpling. But above all else, Wurster is one of the best rock drummers alive, possessed with an irrepressible sense of forward motion essential to Superchunk’s speedy, trebly sound.
Superchunk have played the occasional benefit show and supported political causes, but their activism is more overt and motivated than ever. Two of the album’s most pointed songs, “I Got Cut” and “Break the Glass,” debuted last year as the A-sides of 7-inches that raised proceeds for Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center, respectively, with rabble-rousing ‘70s and ‘80s hardcore covers on the B-sides. “I Got Cut” features a cry of “free Chelsea Manning” in the middle eight. And “Break the Glass,” with its ominous verses and chiming, hopeful choruses, sums up the album’s seesaw between optimism and despair. It’s up there with the 2012 one-off “This Summer” as candidates for the best song of the band’s 2010s output.
What a Time to Be Alive, like any album that feeds on current events, stands the risk of aging poorly. But ultimately, it’s not too different from other Superchunk albums where McCaughan’s songs gained emotional weight from the circumstances surrounding the recording, from the breakup that fueled 1993’s Foolish to the death of a friend that hung over 2013’s I Hate Music. And as far as subject matter goes, “Republicans suck” is about as evergreen as any love song.