Find the mid-nineteen-nineties version of me and ask him to indulge in a little pop culture forecasting. Specifically, get him to name the titans of alternative rock who’ll be still be around twenty years later, dishing out new music just as vital as anything from their heyday. I’m not sure what names he’d offer, but I’d wager Superchunk wouldn’t even occur to him as likely paragons of longevity.
Sure, the existence of Merge Records, founded by band members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, spoke to a stream of ambition and responsibility cutting through the tundra of their art. This is also an act that effectively introduced themselves to the alternative nation with the single “Slack Motherfucker.” That track may be about independent ambition (“I’m working/ But I’m not working for you”), but its brash disregard for niceties alone seemed an impediment to the long haul. It was grandly callous, punk-sparked rock ‘n’ roll, and the prevailing credo of the art still strongly favored burning out over fading away.
In the modern era of every reasonably talented bygone college radio artist getting an elder statesman revival if they want it, Superchunk has been one of the more distinguished boomerang bands. Officially, they never went away, but nearly a decade passed between Here’s to Shutting Up, released in 2001, and Majesty Shredding, from 2010. It certainly seemed like a semi-retirement. It also seemed to be good for them. It’s not fair to say Superchunk sounded revitalized on Majesty Shredding, if only because its not-so-immediate predecessor was a fine album, too. But the all-grown-up vibe of Here’s to Shutting Up was easier to build on with a few extra years of distance. It was better to let the new foundation settle.
Wonderfully, the band’s latest album, What a Time to Be Alive, utilizes the improved sense of craft in revisiting the fierce discontent of Superchunk’s earliest material. Driven by dismay over the grisly political turns of the past couple years, the band made an album that kicks up a furor. It roils and snarls and stands aghast at what’s happening. “Nothing is familiar out there/ But everything’s the same/ It’s just the center leaking out/ While all the trees go up in flames,” McCaughan sings on “Break the Glass,” his trademark nasal firecracker of voice making the song come across as part manifesto and part plea. Tuneful and charged, the song captures the sense of trudging onward in an unsettled time.
“Reagan Youth” honors one of the key ancestors of protest punk (“Reagan Youth taught you how to feel/ Reagan Youth showed you what was real”), as if deliberately calling upon magical figures of past glories could help Superchunk get the universe wobbling on its axis. The bristling punk charge of “Lost My Brain” suggests they might manage it, as does “I Got Cut,” which was specifically inspired by attacks on reproductive rights by elderly white men (“All these old men won’t die too soon/ Flesh balloons still waving their arms around and/ Slipping over the sides”), with Superchunk name-checking Chelsea Manning in the process. On these tracks — and across the album — the music is lean and propulsive, meant to send sweat spattering onto dingy club walls.
“Erasure,” featuring guest vocals from Stephin Merritt and Katie Crutchfield, might be the album’s clearest, most compelling statement of purpose. Against a loping beat and buzzy guitars, the lyrics call out the current power structure’s dastardly attempts to cast delegitimize any and all dissent against their careening agenda of rolling back social progress. “Our empathy weaponized/ Our history bleaching out during the day,” McCaughan sings, ultimately warning that any attempts at erasing the voices of opposition will be fruitless. “Hate so graceless and so cavalier/ We don’t just disappear/ Shifting shapes you’re just an auctioneer/ But we’re still here,” he adds.
What a Time to Be Alive won’t topple any ramparts. Superchunk knows that as well as anyone. But it’s plenty cathartic, anyway. The album will provide a dandy soundtrack when the revolution comes.