What made, and still makes Superchunk the very face of American indie is the fact that they never bent over for anyone. Arguably no other band was as emblematic of the true spirit of American indie rock during the ‘90s.
Following the punk-based D.I.Y musical style by the textbook, the band operated solely on their own rules ignoring all passing trends and movements, and sticking to their trademark sound — famous for frontman Mac McCaughan’s buzzing guitars and highly passionate vocals. The band rejected the advances of every other major record label, refusing to give up their freedom, upholding the true spirit of the indie way and went on to start their own, highly successful Merge Records (who would go on to sign a young Arcade Fire).
Now, almost 30 years into the game, released via their very own Merge Records, their 2018 LP What a Time to Be Alive keeps all of that ethos intact and that’s what makes it a truly great album.
The band sounds royally pissed off as they rip through a batch of angry and bittersweet songs that were written in a rush right after the 2016 US election. Just like MGMT’s latest release, Little Dark Age, Superchunk’s latest effort was admittedly a rushed effort to get their 2 cents in on Trump becoming the leader of the free world.
The album was recorded quickly and simply, and the desire to get the songs down fast meant there wasn't any time for keyboard overdubs. The need to include other voices led them to bring in Sabrina Ellis of A Giant Dog, Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield, and Stephin Merritt.
It's the grittiest, toughest sounding record Superchunk has made in ages. The guitars, especially Jim Wilbur's leads, rain fire all around Mac McCaughan's vocals, which have the intensity of someone getting electrocuted, but is unusually poppy while being so. "What a time to be alive" McCaughan screams over and over again, not with hope, but with utter anguish and surprise along a deceptively optimistic chord progression.
On "I Got Cut," he bellows, "All these old men won't die too soon/Flesh balloons, still waving their arms around," along with words of support for Chelsea Manning. And on "All for You," McCaughan challenges a certain greedy, despicable person with the chorus, "Fight me/I don't like to get hit but fight me.” No points for guessing who that’s dedicated to.
"Everyone is acting normal / but no one’s sleeping through the night” McCaughan sings hopelessly in "Break the Glass”. The nostalgic fever of "Reagan Youth," and the steadfast fury of "All for You" show that Superchunk aren't going to back down and neither should their listeners and the passion invested in the album is evident. In a career full of songs that slash through the static like the highest powered transmitter, the songs on 'What a Time to Be Alive' are some of the most powerful and memorable they've made.
The hooks are massive and catchy, with some instances of melting, droning dissonant guitars. The high-energy punk tracks like I Got Cut are perfect for shouting along to, and the midtempo tracks the band have made their specialty since Driveway to Driveway all make the songs chant-worthy for a crowd.
Superchunk have been a vital part of the indie rock scene for so many years that it can be easy to overlook them or consider them relics of a bygone age. But What a Time to Be Alive is the clearly the work of a vital band making music that needs to be made right now! The urgent punk anthems deliver their pop songs with an electric punch. It is desperate, bursting forth, and powerful music and it might just outshine everything the band has ever made to date.