Maybe we were just fooling ourselves, but even though they came together before the end of the Cold War, Superchunk had thus far managed to avoid seeming like they’re actually, you know, getting old. Maybe it’s the fact that their surging “whoa-oh-oh” choruses and buzzsaw guitars still sound just as electrifying as they did during the Clinton years, or maybe it’s that onstage the band still bounces around like a bunch of slap-happy twenty-somethings, but for whatever reason it seemed like Superchunk had this whole punk-after-40 thing figured out. By keeping busy with excellent side projects (Jon Wurster drums for the Mountain Goats, Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur play in Portastatic, and — oh yeah — Laura Balance and McCaughan own and operate Merge Records), they leave enough time between albums that the music always sounds fresh, even though they’ve been using same basic formula for over two decades.
But even Superchunk can’t hang forever suspended in some amber of eternal youth. The band started showing its increasing lyrical maturity on 2010’s triumphant Majesty Shredding. Songs like “Digging For Something” revealed a nostalgia and wistfulness that seemed to include just a little more hard-earned wisdom than their earlier work. Now, in the aftermath of the death of their friend, filmmaker David Doernberg, the band has created one of the one finest examinations of mourning and loss in the pop cannon.
The album’s cover features a park in the dead of winter covered in a heavy blanket of snow, which presages the record’s weightiness and introspection. Superchunk generally writes music meant to be spewed from car speakers into bright sunshine, but I Hate Music’s subject matter lends itself more to the cold and seclusion of a winter’s day. But as much the album is focuses mortality and loss, this isn’t dark music. Given the subject matter, it would be easy for songs to veer into morbidity and depression. On I Hate Music, McCaughan isn’t singing about death — he’s singing about life in the face of death.
Not that moving on is easy to do. For most of the record the singer confronts death by retreating, either into angry darkness or soothing nostalgia. He indulges in both in “Out Of The Sun”, which starts as a dreamy recollection of happy times before the pain of loss washes through the song, taking it for a hard left turn. The retreats into darkness are few, but powerful. On “Overflows” McCaughan despairs at every moment that passes because it’s one that he can’t share with his friend. “Staying Home”, meanwhile, is just concentrated anger packaged in 75 seconds of pure catharsis. Wurster pounds his skins like they angered him while McCaughan screams some version of the title over the squall of a raging guitar. It’s the one moment on the record where things sound close to coming unhinged, providing a stark counterpoint to the more constructive grief that makes up the rest of the disc.
Indeed, it’s the album’s nostalgic songs that are the most effective and affecting. The memories invoked here — listening to ska records in a van, skinny-dipping in Spain, dancing through a summer’s night — are so lovingly recounted that they manage to create a sense of secondhand loss in the listener. In “Your Theme” McCaughan takes it a step farther and manufactures his own nostalgia, imagining one last afternoon with his friend which he knows can never happen. As he grapples with the transience of these moments compared to the eternity of death, McCaughan at times seems on the verge of collapse. But ultimately the power of joy felt in those memories is enough to make life worth living, even in the face of the inevitable. “All I see is a void,” he complains at one point before easing up on the throttle of despair, adding “but I don’t believe everything I see.”
The slow-building closer “What Can We Do” finds McCaughan directly addressing the question he’s been wrestling with throughout the record: how to go on living in the face of death. The answer he comes to is simple, obvious, and profound: “build something new.” It’s a natural response for a group as ardently D.I.Y. (not to mention prolific) as Superchunk. Though the record’s title might claim that music is meaningless in the face of mortality, the band knows deep in its hearts that art is one of humanity’s greatest attempts at immortality. McCaghuan’s right that music “can’t bring anyone back to this earth” (at least not physically), but it can help keep a person’s spirit alive in the hearts and minds of others, and that’s surely what I Hate Music will do. This album is undeniable proof that creating something with resounding beauty is the ultimate defiance of death.