Growing Up Superchunk: My Life with Indie-Rock (Sort Of)
I missed out on punk rock. Sure, I listened to Social Distortion on my friend Pat’s tape deck, got into old Clash tapes in college, bought copies of Sex Pistols albums, and obsessed over Stiff Little Fingers, but I wasn’t there, not really; it was all seen from a historical perspective, so to speak. Punk rock was already dead and gone by the time I graduated from high school and moved to the big city, away from the hair-metal/rap/country sinkhole of Killeen, Texas, to the metropolitan hell of Houston. Punk wasn’t my music, even if it happened to be the music of some of my friends and peers.
College opened my eyes, though, like it does for a lot of people, and by sophomore year I was venturing out into Houston proper to see bands I’d heard on the local indie college station, KTRU. Again, I missed out on the old-school punk bands, and even newer bands like The Replacements or The Pixies, but there was plenty of other stuff out there that was still real, still happening. As it happened, I went to see a friend’s band open for some band I’d briefly heard of called Superchunk, at a little dive in the now-vanishing warehouse district, and that night ended up changing just about everything. I stood, transfixed, watching and listening in awe as the band blew apart everything I thought I knew about music.
The quintessential “indie-rock” band even then, formed in 1989 in Chapel Hill by singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance, and later incorporating second guitarist Jim Wilbur and drummer John Wurster (their earlier counterparts had since moved on to other things), Superchunk were like nothing I had ever heard before. The music was loud and intense, but catchy as hell at the same time, with intelligent lyrics about things that actually made sense to me, like relationships, loss, and the idiosyncrasies of people in general. McCaughan alternately howled into the mic and pogo-ed around the stage like a berserk jack-in-the-box, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. At some point, I remember turning to the friend who’d come with me to the show, pointing at the stage, and yelling in his ear, “I want to do that!” I’d found the music I’d been looking for, unconsciously, since those MTV-starved days of my youth. Superchunk not only formed my musical tastes for the next four-plus years, but they were the inspiration to play things other than metal or grunge on my old high-school guitar, and later, to try to play in a band of my own.
Years passed and I gathered as many of the band’s CDs as I could; sure, I hadn’t yet been a fan by the days of “Slack Motherfucker” or No Pocky for Kitty, but I caught up quickly. And the strange thing was that with every album or song the band released, they seemed to mirror my own internal life at the time: first Foolish, one of the all-time best breakup albums ever, fell into my lap at the end of a really bad, destructive relationship; I went backwards to pick up the debut Superchunk CD, on Matador, just when I was getting more into my own band, and the rough, ragged-yet-beautiful songs provided the impetus to buy a 4-track and try recording; and 1995’s Here Where the Strings Come In happened along after yet another breakup, this time of the more severe, more “adult” variety, the real end of something, a feeling matched by the CD’s title track.
I missed Indoor Living, the next full-length, because it was released at a time when I’d become disenchanted with music in general, convinced that books were a better use of my time and money. Come Pick Me Up, the album before their latest, was my own personal return to the CD-buying populace, the music of it pulling away from the standard “Superchunk sound” of guitars-bass-drums and loud, rocking post-punk, somehow just as I “found” things like jazz, Nick Drake, and Massive Attack. By then, the band felt like old friends; I knew every face, knew every word to every song, knew just how Ballance’s bass sounded from one song to the next, and knew the history of the band as well as I knew my own. Superchunk had been a part of my life for ten solid years, longer than any other band I can name.
Finally, McCaughan and company’s most recent album, Here’s to Shutting Up, now meanders in. From the quiet, introspective keys that start “Late-Century Dream” onward, the CD is immediately both the band’s most low-key and its most mature, “adult” release to date, and that adult-ness somehow fits perfectly with my own life right now—I’m married now, with a house of my own for the first time, my musical tastes are broader and more varied than ever, and I’m being forced to take a good look at myself and reevaluate the direction my life has taken. Cigarette smoke bugs the hell out of me, I go to bed early when I can, I no longer live near any of the local clubs in town, and I’m finding I’ve got better things to spend money on than covers at bars; I’m not that kid in his dorm room, jumping around to roaring, pummeling guitars, not anymore. I’m a real-live grown-up, I’m afraid.
Thankfully, the members of Superchunk themselves aren’t kids anymore, either, and the long evolution from “Slack Motherfucker” to “Drool Collection” is as much a journey to adulthood for the band as my own personal journey to this point has been for me. The changed sound of Here’s to Shutting Up doesn’t even throw me off, really, the way Come Pick Me Up did (although I imagine that if I’d heard Indoor Living I would have been more prepared); I took immediately to the low-level hum of Shutting Up, a CD I probably would have turned my nose up at just a few years past. Superchunk have grown up, that’s for sure, opting to actually sing rather than yell (often in a strangely beautiful falsetto) and expanding their musical palette beyond four chords and distortion to include a heavy dose of keyboards (something they’d experimented with some on previous albums, but never to this extent), violin and cello (played by Anna Balka of the White Lights and Heather McIntosh of Japancakes), and even pedal steel (courtesy of Japancakes’ John Neff).
Actually, even I was surprised by that last one, showing up like it does in “Phone Sex”, an out-and-out country song, of all things, a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on some Bloodshot Records comp if McCaughan had just a teeny bit of a backwoods twang in his voice. It’s the story of two lovers separated by distance and tragedy, able to interact only over the phone, and it’s the kind of song I would’ve hated back in the “old days” of Superchunk, when anything with a country backbeat and slide guitars was just plain useless, at least to me. Of course, the song isn’t, and I’m glad I can now appreciate it, because it’s a beautiful, melancholy piece of music.
In fact, that description fits most of the album, taken as a whole—there’s a generally melancholy, almost resigned tone to the CD, like the acceptance that life moves along without much in the way of control by people like you or me. “Late-Century Dream” is a meditation on modern culture and the pace and stress of modern life, with the line “everybody lives in a knot” accurately describing the daily life of many of us out there. Daily life seems more uncertain than ever before, and that post-millennial tension comes through in the music. After that first track, “Rainy Streets” seems to signal a return to the band’s “old” sound, with plenty of heavy, Hüsker Dü influenced guitars and even some yelling, but then “Phone Sex” comes in and defuses it completely and wonderfully (God, I love that galloping slide bit).
“Florida’s on Fire” is a bit different, a darker, more sinister-sounding track with a great drone-rock riff repeated endlessly in what sounds like the far end of a really big room, while the band chants “Don’t you know that the dirt’s on fire down here?/Yeah, yeah”. I almost want to say that the song is some sort of reference to the recent election mess, which would be a very different subject for the band to tackle, considering that they don’t generally do overtly political songs, preferring to deal instead with interpersonal relationship-type stuff. The next track, “Out on the Wing”, is poppier, with oddly retro-sounding synths, and takes on the now-more-timely-than-ever subject of fear of flying, one that the band’s done at least once or twice on earlier albums (and which gets a hit here in “Phone Sex”, too), followed by the softly-played, relaxed “The Animal Has Left Its Shell”, a song that really embraces the string arrangements and odd little electronic touches the band members have been experimenting with.
Of all the songs on the disc, “Act Surprised” may be my least favorite, and it’s mostly because it’s the lone song that seems to tread completely on ground those Superchunk folks have covered before. It’s not a bad song, by any means, but as the average relationship-gone-bad song in the bunch, it feels out of place in the midst of such complex musings (not that relationships can’t be complex, obviously, but y’know). “Art Class (song of Yayoi Kusama)”, however, seems to turn that focus of the album on its head, cheerily pointing out that art and life are really intertwined and wondering if we’re all maybe taking ourselves too seriously. It also happens to rock like hell, bringing to mind the music on Here’s Where the Strings Come In, while the next song, “What Do You Look Forward To?” is a forlorn, drifting track with lots of keyboards, a lot like “Late-Century Dream” and another that follows the theme of travel and airplanes.
Shutting Up feels like maybe it should end there, bookended by two fairly similar-sounding tracks, but apparently the band felt differently and threw on the closer, “Drool Collection”. A pretty, hopeful pop song, it pokes fun at the band members themselves, reminding the listener that they’re just as human as the rest of us. It’s a bit regretful, but ends the album with more of a smile and a shrug, which I think is a pretty good thing; it seems to say “don’t worry, this isn’t quite the end; we’ll be back”. Maybe in another two years, they’ll wander back through—I’ll definitely be glad to see them again.