In a year when its peers have made some valiant comebacks, and at a time when young upstarts directly or indirectly inspired by its old-school sound are spearheading a spirited punk-pop revival, leave it to Superchunk to show ‘em all how things are done. Returning with Majesty Shredding, their first full-length release in almost a decade, the underground legends don’t waste any time proving that they haven’t lost a single step, front-loading the album with its most propulsive number “Digging for Something” at the top of the track list. As if to make it clear the quartet isn’t simply going through the motions, the opener pulls out all the stops, with pounding rhythms, relentless riffs, and lead singer Mac McCaughan holding nothing back in his vocals, offering up his trademark out-of-tune falsetto yelps. But before you get a chance to catch your breath, the group launches into more of its prototypical power-punk on “My Gap Feels Weird”, its bashed-up bass and drums interplay hearkening back to indie anthems that have stood the test of time. Combine that with McCaughan’s indie outsider lyrics (“Here is a song for the kids down on the corner/With a look that tells you/You don’t even know them/And you never will”) and you have Superchunk at its most bruising and most catchy.
Though you wouldn’t know it from that unmistakable Superchunk sound ringing in your ears, a lot has changed for the fortunes of indie rock’s most reliable band in the nine years since its last album, Here’s to Shutting Up. More specifically, Merge Records, founded by band leaders McCaughan and Laura Ballance, has become a taste-making cultural force building itself up the old fashioned way over time, hitting the jackpot this year with three Billboard Top Ten releases by Spoon, She & Him, and Arcade Fire. Whereas Superchunk and Merge had always given so many young up-and-comers the time, space, and cred to grow, hopefully good karma might just come full circle for the veteran band this time around, with the label’s high profile giving its signature act a chance to reap the residual benefits of popular success to go with its long-established critical acclaim.
If that’s the case, Majesty Shredding makes a strong case for Superchunk, no matter if it’s to a new generation of would-be fans or as a welcome reintroduction to long-time followers. While the album is a complete piece in and of itself, it also works like a best-of that showcases the band’s go-to moves, full of streamlined punch-packing punk-pop that has no problem keeping up either with Superchunk’s best material or the up-and-comers who’ve stolen a few tricks from Chapel Hill’s finest. If anything, those who had harped that Superchunk had mellowed out when it ascended to elder statesmen status in the late ‘90s won’t find much to gripe with on Majesty Shredding. From the first few tracks on, Superchunk’s pogo-pop pretty much keeps its bounce through the album’s 11 tracks, slowing things up occasionally to save itself to come back even harder. “Crossed Wires” is a perpetual motion pop tune generated by a finely-tuned guitar-bass-drums machine, while “Slow Drip” is anything but what the title connotes, kicking into action with a squeal of feedback and drummer Jon Wurster’s primal banging.
When the strings and keyboards do come in, the more composed moments still bristle with energy, where the bold guitar-based sound whipped up by McCaughan and Jim Wilbur is embellished, not overwhelmed, by the orchestral elements. The closest thing to an emo-esque ballad on the album, “Fractures”, offers a nice change of pace, as Superchunk’s dense, frenetic approach opens up a bit to let McCaughan’s earnest croon take center stage with sentimental lyrics like, “When the past proves tough to resist/You’ll keep a loose grip on my wrist/Won’t you?” The swooping guitar lines are traced with some swelling strings, but never so much that you’d think Superchunk was going soft on you since the whole thing only gets bigger and bigger. And it’s only by Superchunk standards that “Rosemarie” could be considered as a mid-tempo charmer, redirecting the foursome’s frenzied intensity by stretching things out with some twangier elements, as a little bit of synth sneaks in at the end. Maybe a wiser, gentler Superchunk shows up on these tracks, but, again, that’s only relatively speaking.
While Majesty Shredding might not add any new entries to the indie singles hall of fame on par with “Slack Motherfucker”, “Cool”, or “Driveway to Driveway”, every track on it is a fitting tribute to those classics. And the anthemic coda “Everything at Once” can at least be mentioned in the next sentence, with a shout-sing chorus that sums up Superchunk’s everyday appeal so well: “So here’s a song about nothing/And everything at once”. It’s obvious that Superchunk hardly needs to prove anything to anyone at this point, but Majesty Shredding is a great reminder of the legacy that the band had long since cemented. With his typical aw-shucks swagger, McCaughan himself puts it best: “Yeah, we’re back where we belong”.
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