Superchunk's 'What a Time to Be Alive' Proves Music Is Powerful in Difficult Times

Photo: Lissa Gotwals (Merge Records)

Superchunk were the sleeping giants of indie rock. This time the giant has bared its teeth.

What A Time To Be Alive


16 Feb 2018

Superchunk were the sleeping giants of indie rock. They were dormant through the Bush administration, not releasing an album between 2001-2009. Their comeback record, 2010's Majesty Shredding, was a re-hash of their typical wirey guitars paired with clever wordplay. There's nothing wrong with that record: it's quality indie rock music. Although, in hindsight, that was just the hibernating giant waking up and stretching.

The band really awoke with the next record, I Hate Music. The loss of a loved one led the group to the most gut-wrenching music of their career, perfectly summed up by the eternal lyric, "I hate music. What is it worth? It can't bring anyone back to this earth, but I got nothing else, so here we go." Furthermore, it showed an aged group becoming newly important to themselves. Their new record, What a Time to Be Alive, is another thing altogether. It's immediate. It's powerful. It's political. This time the giant has bared its teeth.

And that's the title reference: these times are so strange to so many of us. It seems like every day reveals another horrible reality we were ignoring, whether consciously or unconsciously. It's all in our face now, and that's a good thing overall. It's mentally challenging though, and What a Time to Be Alive shows one way to cope: be loud and be aggressive, as the standout track, Break the Glass, makes so clear: "Break the glass. Don't use the door."

That's the record summed up right there: the band playing frantically-paced indie rock and singing about the mess we're watching every day. More specifically though, the lyrics seem to be drawing a straight line to our current president, or at least the current movement of which he is unquestionably the figurehead. "Erasure" is a song whose title says it all: "What you're after. Erasure." The next song, "I Got Cut" gets more direct when it says, "All these old men won't die too soon. Flesh balloons still waving their arms around…." Later, "Cloud of Hate" sees the lead singer Mac McCaughan singing, "Opened the crack that you had longed for, the sickness that you had always been." It's direct stuff, and it's a little wild getting it from Superchunk.

The track "Reagan Youth" has nothing to with Reagan, so it's not drawing a line to Trump at all. What it is about is music and how it follows us through our lives. It begins with an account of a hot summer and the narrator discovering the band Reagan Youth and them teaching "You how to feel." The second verse accounts many years later, when some of your friends have died and life has hit you in the face, yet that music is still there teaching. McCaughan sings, "There's more than one Reagan Youth", and that's the most-important theme here: music helps us stay sane in the midst of all the madness. McCaughan and Superchunk have become one of their own saviors with What a Time to Be Alive. They might be one of yours too.

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