If you’re not into Superchunk at this point, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say to convince you. The band’s sound — a frenetic, punky, guitar-forward indie-rock — hasn’t evolved over their more than 30 years as a group so much as it’s been gradually refined. That fact is even cheekily acknowledged by Superchunk, whose publishing company is called All the Songs Sound the Same. While there’s still a bit of “Slack Motherfucker” and “Precision Auto” on their records, the Superchunk of the last decade are intent on asking poignant questions that make their early songs sound small in retrospect.
The most notable record of their post-hiatus era (and perhaps most overlooked) is 2013’s I Hate Music, an album reckoning with the death of singer Mac McCaughan’s long-time friend. Rather than a record about mortality, though, it was one about aging: at 46, McCaughan knew the death of a friend would no longer be a rare event. In many ways, it was a wistful ode to the past, though it didn’t ever sound nostalgic. McCaughan was openly pondering what someone who’s built an entire life around music should do when music is no longer enough to get through life.
On their new record, Wild Loneliness, McCaughan again asks a big question, though it’s less personal this time. Now that we seem to be cautiously creeping out from the worst of the pandemic, what kind of world do we want to live in? While McCaughan’s lyrics grapple with the realities of 2020 and 2021, Superchunk’s songs are upbeat and anthemic. On the opener “City of the Dead”, McCaughan recalls the empty streets of lockdown, though he manages to find a silver lining despite everything: “I’ll still make the coffee / And we still make the beds / And the kids are scarred but smarter.”
The lead single, “Endless Summer”, is a power-pop stunner that belies the grim subject matter. “Is this the year the leaves don’t lose their color?” McCaughan sings, sounding oddly upbeat. Behind him are Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley of Teenage Fanclub, two voices who’ve made a career out of making the dismal sound glorious. Even when McCaughan sounds more pessimistic, criticizing idiotic neighbors on back-half highlight “Refracting”, he’s aware that negativity is a waste of time: “I should direct my energy somewhere good / But it keeps refracting.”
In some ways, Wild Loneliness feels like a course correction after 2018’s uneven What a Time to Be Alive, a Trump-era protest album that, like much of the Trump era’s protest art, struggled to critique something so obviously and brazenly grotesque. It’s challenging to hear Wild Loneliness without viewing it as a product of the pandemic, but hearing it as a political record is beside the point. McCaughan and company are trying to imagine the possibility of a better future, despite every bit of reality that suggests imagining such a thing is impossible.
Back in April 2020, the novelist Arundhati Roy wrote about the unique opportunity that a global disruption provided. “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different,” she wrote. “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks, and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
It’s hard to remember the strange optimism of those early days of the lockdown. It’s even harder to imagine hanging onto that optimism considering the past two years. But after months upon months of bad news, it sure is tempting. When McCaughan sings, “We make the world when the old one dies,” I want to believe him.