If every band I’ve ever loved could have (or would in the future) follow Superchunk’s model of how to keep it going, goddamn I’d be a happy man. Superchunk could literally write the book on how to grow old gracefully in rock & roll.
They began as every great band before them. A kick-ass balls-to-the-wall record. Theirs was self-titled, released in 1990, and just happen to contain one of the greatest rock anthems of all time in “Slack Motherfucker.” It’s refrain of “I’m working/But I’m not working for you/Slack Motherfucker” still today rings loud and clear voicing the frustrations of the last two generations at least. If the off-wall street folk had a slogan as concise as this they might have gotten somewhere.
Now granted, this first album came at a time when people were wrongly convinced that the genius embers that were burning out in Minneapolis had somehow moved west to Seattle. Uh-uh. Wrong! They moved southeast to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And Superchunk planted the seeds that over the next few years would give us the likes of Archers of Loaf and Polvo. Rock & roll in the 90s was Chapel Hill.
For their second album the band had Steve Albini behind the boards and delivered a masterpiece. “No Pocky for Kitty” stands for me as one of the classic indie rock albums of all time. And they didn’t stop there, “On The Mouth,” “Foolish,” “Here’s Where The Strings Come In.” Three abums in three years. Then three more over the next six years. And I’m not even counting the EPs and B-sides. Never a miss. Never an album that made you wonder what went wrong. And though they certainly had a specific sound, so driven by Laura Ballance’s bass, Jim Wilbur’s guitar, Jon Wurster’s drums, and Mac McCaughan’s vocals – perhaps best described as part Replacements/part Rush – they kept changing it up just enough to keep it fresh and wonderful, but never so much as to turn away the die-hards.
And then they took a decade off.
I’m sure I was not alone in wondering if we’d ever see a new Superchunk album. I’m sure I was not alone in mourning another great band from my younger days. (A band as great on stage as in the studio.)
And then in 2010 they released a new album called “Majesty Shredding.” Was it their best? No. But it didn’t have to be. It was another fine addition to the canon, with one of their best songs ever in “Learned to Surf.” And it was a wake up call that Superchunk was still around. (Though by this point, we probably would have been happy with Mac reading the phone book while Laura played a walking bass line.)
Which bring us to the present day. A new album. “I Hate Music.” A title ripped from a song on The Replacements first album. (I know Mac loves the Mats, he said as much on camera in my film “Color Me Obsessed.”) That, if nothing else, held promise.
But no where, no how, did it prepare me for what I was about to hear.
This is Superchunk’s masterpiece. A finely honed collection of eleven songs about life, love, growing old, touring. It’s a Wim Wenders road trip through a life in rock and roll. (I played the album for the first time on a long non-Wim Wenders road trip, so I will talk about it in order of how the songs hit me.)
It begins almost liltingly. The acoustic opening of “Overflows” when a seemingly mellowed Mac sings “Everything the dead don’t know/Piles up like magazines and overflows/And everything that you won’t see/Just swirls around/Comes down and buries me.” Then the drums, the bass, a delightfully light electric guitar line kicks in, as do the goosebumps. But I’m skeptical. Bands always put their best track first.
We move on to “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” which starts with an almost Rick Springfield guitar riff, and the line from which the title was culled. Springfield is quickly ditched for a sound that could have easily sounded at home on “No Pocky.” It’s the sort of song which even if everything else sucked would make the album worth buying. A fun summer driving song about hating the thing you probably love the most.
I mentioned Rush before, and I know that might sound like a strange band to mention in the same sentence as Superchunk. But listen to “Void” with its arena rock aspirations and you’ll see where I’m coming from. It’s sort of unlike anything Superchunk has done before, and was honestly the last song on the record I warmed up to. But Goddamn if Jon isn’t channeling his best Neil Peart.
The next song on “I Hate Music” is probably, deep down, my favorite. “Staying Home,” one minute, fifteen seconds of pure punk bliss that truly does sound as it if belongs on that first Replacements album from where this albums’ title came. Right down to Jim doing his best Bob Stinson, and the fall-apart ending. It’s noisy, it’s useless, it’s pure bliss. I fucking love this song.
And as I’m driving to Rhode Island, shaking off the shivers as if Stinson’s ghost had just poked the side of my ear with the jagged end of his guitar string, the noise pop jangle of “Low F” comes on, and by this point I’m not as much reduced to tears as I am a vibrating gaggle of goosebumps.
“And you caught me singing/Said ‘Can you meet me down at low F?’” A love song that only Superchunk could deliver, with the best guitar solo I’ve hear since Wilco’s “Impossible Germany.” But is it a love song to their life in rock? Is it a love song to a life partner? Is it a love song to the other members in the band? Does it make any difference? As with any great work of art, it means something different to every one who listens.
Here the album just does not let up. It’s like a futuristic collection of a band’s greatest hits, from a world where the majority of record buyers actually had taste.
“Trees of Barcelona” and “Breaking Down” and I begin to wonder if this record could really be as good as I’m thinking it is. It’s not just a maturity in their sound, but a vibrancy. They sound like the Superchunk of 1990, perhaps not singing about working for the worst boss of all time, but instead of the joy of a gig in a beautiful Spanish city, or of how we all begin to break down. Yes, it’s called getting old. But they don’t sound as if they’ve aged a day.
With “Out of the Sun” and “Your Theme” I’m hearing the Mats again in the guitars, and that’s such a beautiful thing. The harmonies and throw-away chorus especially, and the soloing that ends the latter. (Can I say thank you guys now for helping to keep guitars alive?)
At this point I’m thinking two tracks to go. And I can almost feel the apprehension. There is no way they can keep this up.
And “FOH” begins, the wall of guitars, and Mac asking “Did you lose something?” I want to say I had begun to lose my belief in rock & roll? But that’s out the window. We hit the sing-along chorus, “How’s everything at the front of the house,” and I think perhaps I died in a car crash and I’m in heaven because there really is a God and he/she is a Mats fan, and he/she is thanking me for making “Color Me Obsessed” and this music is what we get to listen to every day.
I’m tempted to just hit the back button so I can hear the song again, and by this time sing along, and then Mac asks me, “What can we do?”
That is the title of the final track, the eleventh track, over six minutes long. And much like “Slack Motherfucker” twenty-three years earlier Superchunk has given us an anthem. The genius of a band firing in unison, a bit older, a lot wiser, probably more proficient on their instruments, and an answer to anyone who ever thought they were never coming back, “I’ve got wrinkles around my eyes/I’ll say I love you, I won’t say goodbye.”
And yes, Mac, Laura, Jon, and Jim. I’m a sucker for brilliance. The tears begin, and I start the album all over again, and crank it just a little louder this time.
And if you really want to know what you can do, as if the answer isn’t obvious: never stop playing music.