Photo: Merge Records

Superchunk’s ‘Foolish’ Is Genre-Defining Indie Heartbreak

Foolish was Superchunk committing to staying indie amid turmoil, and the scene is better for it. Their discography is filled with iconic singles defining American indie rock.

19 April 1994

By 1994, the major label gold rush was in full effect. A&R representatives raided every town with a scene and every indie label with a following looking for the next Seattle. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was seen as one of the scenes with the most potential for success. Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo, and others were the figureheads of the Chapel Hill scene, and there were stories of labels’ hot pursuit of them, most notably Madonna’s label Maverick trying to sign Archers of Loaf. At the time, Superchunk were on Matador Records, which were pursuing a distribution deal with a major label. With artists like Pavement and Liz Phair set to release hotly anticipated follow-ups to breakthrough releases, they looked quite appealing to the majors. 

In the liner notes for Foolish, written by former drummer Jon Wurster, he begins his recollection in the offices of Atlantic Records, listening to an executive in a fancy suit in his fancy office try to sell them on the spoils of major label life while the band sat there feeling alienated in their corduroys and tees. That was never really on the table for Superchunk. By the time this meeting happened, they had already decided their next record would be released on Merge Records, which was taking off. Lead singer Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance started the label in 1989 to release cassettes and seven-inch singles, but they were growing rapidly.

McCaughan and Ballance were also in the middle of ending their romantic relationship, and Foolish is a breakup album. The cover is a painting of a rueful-looking woman with a dead rabbit awaiting its fate hanging in the background, painted by Ballance. Despite Superchunk continuing and McCaughan and Ballance remaining business partners in Merge, it wasn’t the amicable split it was sold as back when Foolish was released. Ballance mentioned that the tour for Foolish was tough for her. In a “Rank Your Records” article for Vice, she said, “[I remember] Listening to those words every night and feeling so mute. I didn’t get to say anything, and here he [McCaughan] was saying everything. I would be up there jumping up and down with tears streaming down my face.” 

It wasn’t just the label and the relationships that were in flux. Musically, Foolish was seen as a sharp left from the high energy, ragged pop of those early records at the time, even though it really isn’t. Superchunk had already been including slower tempo tracks like the sublime “Swallow That” on their previous record, and after three straight records of hard-charging indie pop, they would have been veering close to the “all the songs sound the same” criticism if they didn’t mix it up.

Breakup record status aside, Foolish is not a downer. It is entirely possible to not listen carefully to McCaughan’s wrenching lyrics and just enjoy the sound of a band stretching its sound further and succeeding mightily.

For change-resistant fans, tracks like “Water Wings” and “Without Blinking” sound like they could have been On the Mouth outtakes. Many of the songs that lean into the more reserved tone, such as “The First Part” and “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?” are fan favorites that remain live staples that draw a tremendous response. 

Superchunk are just too talented to resign themselves to a trajectory of cranking out record after record of the same sound. McCaughan explored keyboards and acoustic guitars in his side project Portastatic, and over time, the sounds of those two projects converged to the point that 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up could have been released as a Portastatic record, and no one would have raised an eyebrow.

Despite the press focus on the slower songs, the most meaningful change in Foolish is the darkness and directness in the lyrics. You might be nodding along repeatedly before realizing you’re singing along to lines like “She pointed at the black cloud in the sky / Said that’s what happens when you learn to fly” and “When you said ‘I’m sorry’, you were not blinking / You can’t pretend to not know how that hurts.” Ouch. But that last line is in one of the catchiest songs, which somewhat mitigates the sting.

Despite a hurried schedule (17 songs were recorded in three days, with most songs getting a maximum of two takes), Brian Paulson’s production suits the record perfectly. It’s a little more polished than the previous albums but unadorned with anything unnecessary. More importantly to its enduring power, these songs came together after a year and a half spent touring On the Mouth, so Superchunk were playing better than ever together.

The opener, “Like a Fool”, begins with a moody intro that eventually builds to a big solo, and it likely sounded like a slowed-down Superchunk song to longtime fans. Where On the Mouth’s opener and perennial live show closer, “Precision Auto”, takes about 15 seconds to reach its addictive riff, “Like a Fool” takes over a minute to reach its mournful centerpiece.

From there, “The First Part” has a bitter, angrier sound than most Superchunk songs. Its most memorable lines are “How long does the first part last / Until we make our respective messes” and “One good minute could last me a whole year.” The song builds and builds to a powerful close that shows just how much better Superchunk sound together and effortlessly bridges the old and new sounds.

Elsewhere, “Driveway to Driveway” has become canon, a wistful, bittersweet track that also builds and builds to a somber close. “Kicked In” continues that mournful tone with a spiky, mid-tempo riff that anchors the song. The second side of Foolish has a mix of songs that recapture that energetic tempo, if not the lyrical fun of earlier records. The aforementioned “Without Blinking” is classic Superchunk. “Revelations” has a little more of that anger of “The First Part”, and “Stretched Out” and “In a Stage Whisper” bring the record to a quiet, resigned close.

Foolish is a fan favorite, and it was likely a balm for many of their fans who had experienced the ups and downs of early 20s romantic relationships. As a newer fan who was in the middle of devouring their whole discography, I found myself drawn more to the somber tracks on Foolish when I bought it soon after it was released, even though the careening pop-punk of “Precision Auto” is what drew me in initially. The swings on Foolish assured me that this was a band I would grow with, and that has certainly proved to be the case, all the way through the fury of 2018’s What a Time to be Alive and the “now what?” post-rage hangover of Wild Loneliness.

Sure, 21st-century fandom certainly has its toxic streaks running through it, but today’s vitriol is aimed at critics and non-fans more so than bands. The 1990s were a decade obsessed with “selling out”. Fans nervously listened to major label debuts by their beloved indie bands, crying foul when the group were perceived to be aiming for the larger audience that would keep them afloat on a major label. As the underground became increasingly less so, many fans sought to put a fence around what they saw as theirs, sometimes turning on the bands themselves for committing egregious acts like making music videos or getting played on the radio.

The early to mid-1990s produced a number of records that ran the risk of alienating diehards, mostly through improved production and newfound maturity. Many of the most enduring releases of that era were big swings compared to the indie releases that preceded them. The Afghan WhigsGentlemen, Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record, Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart, and many other releases were bands hitting creative peaks while utilizing the benefits of bigger production budgets.

In a way, Foolish is the optimized version of this growth, a band eschewing the big bucks to bet on artistic growth and the security of owning their own business rather than contributing to the shareholders’ quarterly results. Staying on Merge, they couldn’t be accused of changing their sound to appease the big-money people. While Sonic Youth rode their tastemaker status to a long run on a major without a breakthrough hit, most of the bands in this era were signed and dropped quickly when they didn’t capture the zeitgeist, often after only one release. 

Superchunk also likely understood the reality of their proposed life on a major. Wurster mentioned in his essay about Foolish that when the group met executives at Atlantic, they drew a few hundred people most nights. Their signature song at the time, “Slack Motherfucker”, wasn’t destined for the MTV Buzz Bin. Their most widely seen music video at the time was puppet versions of the band playing the song. Why risk so much when they could grow their own business and call the creative shots?

And grow it did. By the mid-2000s, Merge was a significant hub for talented bands that had been spat out by the industry, such as Spoon, critical darlings that shaped current tastes like Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel, and their biggest mainstream success, the Arcade Fire, who won an Album of the Year Grammy while still on the label. Recently, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud landed atop many best of 2020 lists. They still focus on providing a home for artists with devoted followings like the Mountain Goats, Bob Mould, Fucked Up, Destroyer, and the New Pornographers and attract exciting, forward-thinking up-and-comers.

In 1995, Superchunk followed up Foolish with Here’s Where the Strings Come In, which contains lead single “Hyper Enough”, which was their biggest hit on alternative radio. It also includes the relentlessly catchy fan favorite “Detroit Has a Skyline”. Stylistically, it was a little closer to On the Mouth than Foolish, but that wouldn’t last. From Indoor Living forward, Superchunk continued to bring in more experimentation, working with Jim O’Rourke on 1999’s Come Pick Me Up. 2001 brought Here’s to Shutting Up, which featured more subdued sounds, ornate arrangements, and even a little country influence. 

After that, Superchunk would take a break for about a decade before returning with Majesty Shredding and I Hate Music soon after. Both records found McCaughan exploring middle age and the continued role of music in our lives. An angry, world-weary set of tracks made up What a Time to Be Alive, arguably the best record of the reunion period, and 2022’s Wild Loneliness marked a return to the quieter sounds of Come Pick Me Up but retained the lyrical focus on current affairs. Superchunk also steadily release seven-inch singles and regularly collect those on complications, the most recent being last fall’s massive Misfits and Mistakes box set.

Thirty years later, the decision to release Foolish on Merge looks like an even smarter decision. McCaughan and Ballance continue to run Merge together, and the label are celebrating their 35th anniversary this summer with a massive festival in Carrboro, North Carolina. Superchunk still have a devoted following when they tour, and they have a virtually blemish-free discography filled with iconic singles that define American indie rock. It’s hard to think of a label and band that more exemplifies an enviable mix of artistic, critical, and commercial success in the modern rock era. Foolish is a critical piece of that story.