WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE by Superchunk
Genre: Indie Rock
Favorite Tracks: “What A Time To Be Alive,” “Dead Photographers,” “Erasure,” “All For You,” “Black Thread”
Of all of the ‘90s indie veterans to come out swinging in the 2010s, I’m not sure many people would have bet heavy on Superchunk as a lasting powerhouse this deep in the new millenia. After a modest but somewhat forgettable foray into the 2000s with HERE’S TO SHUTTING UP in 2001, the band silently went away for nearly a decade, playing the occasional show but mostly focusing on side projects—Mac McCaughan releasing solo records and working with bassist Laura Ballance to build Merge Records into an indie powerhouse, and Jon Wurster recording and touring with everyone from his mainstays the Mountain Goats and Bob Mould to A.C. Newman and Robert Pollard. But the band’s comeback over the last eight years has been an absolute tear, from their hooky comeback record MAJESTY SHREDDING to its comfort food follow-up, I HATE MUSIC, we’ve arrived at their most urgent and punk-y record in two decades, WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE.
Their newest record (which no, has nothing to do with the Drake/Future collab of the same name), feels as though McCaughan and Co. have something to say for the first time in a long time, and I mean that very literally. While MAJESTY SHREDDING and I HATE MUSIC were fantastic albums in their own rights, they were tapered by the expectation of what ‘90s rock would even sound like in the 2010s, and they came at a time when Pavement had just reunited for a tour, The Stone Roses and Blur were headlining Coachella, and journeymen acts like Dinosaur Jr., Yo La Tengo, and Spirtualized were all championing a rejuvenated sense of sound and self, and being critically spotlighted for it. MAJESTY SHREDDING was a “comeback” record, the kind of forced enlightenment that makes you realize how silly it was Superchunk went away in the first place and reaffirmed just how good they really were. I HATE MUSIC was icing on the cake, a better-than-it-should-be, feel-good album that really forced a reassessment of just how great Superchunk had been all these years. But you don’t listen to “Learned to Surf” or “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” and hear a songwriter struggling with something to get off his chest. MAJESTY SHREDDING in particular was a tight, beautifully recorded and insanely catchy work, a phenomenal album in a year filled with phenomenal rock albums and yet, it was just that—a rock album.
For many artists, McCaughan included, it’s been hard to just make “rock records” as of late, and Superchunk sound heated on WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE, their most politically conscious record to date. You can feel the pressing nature of this release in every track, the lyrics fierce as they scour from McCaughan’s mouth angrily unchecked. As he sums up pretty accurately on the fun-as-hell title-track: “The scum, the shame, the fucking lies / Oh what a time to be alive.” Fittingly, the contrasting power pop soundtrack paints a band indignantly partying while democracy withers away.
To match, these are some of Superchunk’s fastest and most punk-oriented songs since their self titled debut nearly 30 years ago. Like another fantastic foray into political writing, Jeff Rosenstock’s POST- from earlier this year, the songs on this album feel as though they were recorded quickly and urgently, reflecting a bursting rage that McCaughan and the rest of the band have all felt since November 2016. As he implies on “Break the Glass,” we’re living in a constant state of emergency and it’s time to use that hammer and save ourselves—out of that hopeless entrapment has come WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE. Some of these songs are pretty blatant commentary, like the scathingly direct “Reagan Youth,” or the general condemnation towards the right on “Bad Choices” (“I got a lifetime of shit decisions / I might never learn from them / but all your bad choices / are gonna cause suffering”), and others err on a wider sense of vagueness, acting politically in the schematics of the record but otherwise existing as simply focused yet angry rock songs. That FOOLISH-era slow burn is here too on closer “Back Thread,” as close as the album really ever comes to hitting their peak ‘90s sound.
And these songs all FEEL great in ways that are different than their previous two return records. McCaughan tears off guitar solos with a sweaty fever, and Ballance’s bass frequently melds beautifully into Jim Wilbur’s rhythm guitar for punchy and memorable backgrounds. But musically speaking, WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE’s MVP title frequently goes to Wurster, whose drumming feels as essential here as it ever has. The drums heavily attack on songs like “Cloud of Hate,” “I Got Cut,” and “Dead Photographers,” and his intensity elevates these tracks to not just feel irate, but personal. The flexing fills and bright cymbals bring both joy and vehemence to a record where the anger could be overwhelming.
Perhaps the craziest thing about WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE is that it’s an insane career heat check, the kind of snarling and rawkus political album that no band three decades into their careers would or should ever attempt for the first time, but that somehow absolutely fucking works. That Superchunk feel so confident in both themselves and their fanbase that they would dare to write a record of speedy, hooky, and frequently outraged commentaries in this political environment is as ostensibly reckless a move as any the band has made in their career. That it works as well as it does, operating between levels of ambiguity and outright “fuck you” artillery shelling lyrics, shouldn’t be a shock given the talent pool we’re working with, but its recklessness is nonetheless as impressive a feat as any Superchunk have made in their careers.