It’s a testament to the consistency and workman-like brilliance of Superchunk that it’s difficult to identify a single landmark album – or, actually, even a slam-dunk favourite – by the group in its more than 20 years together. Some might chalk that up to thinking of the legendary Chapel Hill combo as a singles band even with nine non-compilation full-lengths under its belt, considering that one of its earliest songs, “Slack Motherfucker”, still remains its most defining and indispensible contribution to the indie canon. Along those lines, collections like Tossing Seeds and Incidental Music are often considered Superchunk’s most essential documents and the most faithful representations of what the band is all about. For those who prefer proper albums, it’s usually the earliest material that holds the most cred, particularly the unrelenting punk-pop slugfests of No Pocky for Kitty and On the Mouth, unless you’re feeling contrarian and pick Superchunk’s most vital middle-era LP, the ironically titled Here’s Where the Strings Come In.
Yet it’s all-too-easy to confuse what your personal desert island Superchunk selection would be with what’s the band’s most challenging and best all-around album of its storied career, which happens to be 1994’s Foolish, just remastered and reissued with some bonus goodies. Why Foolish holds such a distinction might have something to do with the fact that it captures Superchunk at a crossroads, both professionally and personally speaking. Back in the day, Foolish was hailed as Superchunk’s stab at becoming an Alternative Nation crossover, à la Pavement and Sebadoh, though, in the end, the album really didn’t change the group’s status all that much, beyond getting a slight profile bump when the video for “Driveway to Driveway” got into the rotation of MTV’s 120 Minutes. What seemed to be a more likely harbinger of change to Superchunk’s straight-ahead, steady-as-she-goes ethos, though, was the break up involving band principals Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, which many had concluded was the reason behind the more serious, even mature nature of Foolish. It was this confluence of circumstances that made Foolish a compelling and unpredictable listen from a group known for its reliability and laser-focused intensity.
With an unexpectedly slow-building opening track in “Like a Fool” and the almost drawn out, almost mid-tempo first single “Driveway to Driveway”, Foolish made a stark initial impression for its – relatively – slower pace and subtler tones. Sounding like nothing else Superchunk had recorded when it came out, “Driveway to Driveway” still stands out to this day, gorgeously melancholy with its long, country-ish guitar lines that feel downright orchestral next to the tightly-coiled riffs that were and still are the band’s calling card. If Superchunk’s m.o. was to channel righteous frustration better than anyone else, at least this once on “Driveway to Driveway” it showed that it could be just as adept at tapping into emotions that couldn’t simply be expressed by Mac’s chirping and howling, most noticeably when he mournfully croons, “My hand on your heart had been replaced / And I thought it was you that I had chased / Driveway to driveway, drunk.” For a band that usually moshed and walloped away any traces of vulnerability, “Driveway to Driveway” was an especially tender indie ballad that went straight to where the cuts were deepest, which you can hear in the slightly but obviously off-kilter guitar picking that accompanies McCaughan’s woozy singing. Combined with the album’s first number, “Like a Fool”, which slowly crescendos to a catharsis to kick things off, Foolish revealed a soul-searching side to Superchunk that it was usually too antsy and hyped up to explore. On the opener, Mac’s imperfect falsetto has never sounded so impeccable as when it was at its barest, with more open space than ever to highlight all the endearing blemishes in his normally bratty vocals.
So while Foolish certainly played up to the foursome’s strengths and delivered more than its fair share of Superchunk’s best punk-pop ditties, even signature numbers like “The First Part” and “Water Wings” don’t feel just like business as usual, framed as they are by the context established by the moodier offerings. Bristling with melodic energy and propulsive riffs, “The First Part” hits as hard as anything Superchunk has done, but it’s also more expansive, with a sense of a beginning-middle-ending development that the group’s pogo-punk has never worked through as well, before or after it. For a band which had previously asked the question is how fast and answered even faster, the overdriven guitar-pop of “The First Part” proved Superchunk could keep up the pace while giving more to chew on thematically, like when McCaughan makes you do a double take as he sings about “a delicate line” and “whispered phrases and emotions”, not exactly the mental images anyone would associate with a band with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Likewise, “Water Wings” comes on strong like the best Superchunk rompers do, except that its Icarus parable (“She pointed at the black cloud in the sky / That’s what happens when you learn to fly”) is deeper than the band’s standard fare, giving you more to puzzle over as to what the cautionary tale analogy might refer to here, considering the backstory. If, as Mac sings on “The First Part”, that “One good minute would last me a whole year,” these tracks proved that a three-minute power-punk song would make Superchunk a whole career.
There’s a better sense of pacing and more variety on Foolish than any other Superchunk album, thanks to the tone that’s set early on. The middle section on Foolish carries that momentum forward to break new ground for Superchunk with a nice mix of what the group has always done best with some pieces that pushes its palette to its limits, thematically and sonically. “Saving My Ticket” and “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?” are cut from the same cloth of Superchunk’s most thrilling punch-ups, though you could argue there’s something more to them. That might be because the steadily building, mid-tempo burner “Kicked In” is wedged between those two tracks, adding a sense of everyday drama that heightens and brings out the tension bristling in the rave-ups sandwiching it. “Without Blinking” caps off these twists and turns by splitting the difference, a sped-up, in-your-face version of “Driveway to Driveway” that retains just a hint of twang to rein in the reckless abandon.
If the last third of the album peters out a bit, you can hardly blame Superchunk for losing its head of steam by then, considering all the energy and emotion it devoted to what comes before it. While “Keeping Track” deftly builds from quiet to loud as if it were “Like a Fool” part two, things flag towards the end, especially on the uneven “Revelations”, which can’t tell whether it wants to take a cool-down lap or sprint through the finish line as it alternates between a sludgy guitar parts and thrashy riffs. By the time you get to the closer “In a Stage Whisper”, Superchunk is basically running on fumes, reflected by the way the punch-drunk music and Mac’s careening voice sound like the band has collectively taken as many body blows as it has delivered, for once getting as good as it gave.
Although the remastered version of the album only marginally sharpens the edges of the original and the digitally accessed bonus offerings are mostly archival ephemera, the reissue does offer a nice opportunity to revisit Superchunk at a moment in time when it wasn’t a given that the band would stay the indie underground’s most dependable and single-minded act. What’s essential about Foolish is that it represents what could’ve been a turning point – that ultimately wasn’t – for a seminal band, when any number of outcomes was possible, from torn-asunder implosion to well-earned semi-stardom. So even if Foolish ended up being just a brief detour before Superchunk was back on the road it had always most comfortably traveled, the album made the most of articulating the band’s anxieties and uncertainties when it was faced with them, the result being some of Superchunk’s most thrilling and varied work in an over two-decade career. In the end, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same, but that doesn’t mean Foolish didn’t change Superchunk.