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Review: Superchunk, 'What A Time To Be Alive'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


In the early weeks of November 2016, some rock fans disappointed by the impending presidency of Donald J. Trump embraced a pale silver lining: Punk rock would rise again. Those true believers, it seemed, hoped that the likes of Reagan Youth and Minor Threat in the early '80s or even Rage Against the Machine and Refused a decade later would reappear, challenging institutional power with a new surge in musical militancy. That hope seemed like a weak salve from the start, and it has barely happened, anyway. With rare exceptions such asDowntown Boys, protest songs in this era have so far trended metaphorical and oblique — more Old Testament allegories, less "New Aryans" assaults.

One of the major political tirades of the year-old Trump presidency, though, comes from a surprisingly familiar place:Superchunk, the 30-year-old North Carolina quartet that began building the framework for pop-punk and emo before George H.W. Bush sent troops into Iraq. In the 32 breathless minutes of What a Time to Be Alive, Superchunk wishes for the death of bitter old men and the rise of brave young kids, the forceful end of archaic power structures and the perseverance of energetic freedom fighters. "Hate so graceless and so cavalier / We don't just disappear," Mac McCaughan howls during "Erasure," buttressed by harmonies fromWaxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield. "Shifting shapes, you're just an auctioneer / But we're still here." It's an anthem about pushing back, driven by decades of past battles, both won and lost.

Superchunk sat both terms of the second Bush presidency out. They played scattered shows but mostly dug into the archives fora spectacular double set of collected obscurities and a series oflive recordings. The band reconvened in the studio in 2010, launching a very good two-album comeback sequence that applied their puckish energy to newly adult concerns — the death of friends, the fecklessness of art, and the push-and-pull between age and enthusiasm.

Where those albums were mature reflections, What a Time to Be Alive is an instant, honest reaction to the day's news. "To see the rot in no disguise / Oh what a time to be alive," McCaughan sings in the opening title track, outlining the record's animating idea of documenting this moment in history and railing against it. "The scum, the shame, the f****** lies / Oh what a time to be alive." The band meets the call, from guitarist Jim Wilbur's wonderfully slanted counter-melodies and snarling solos to the irrepressible rhythm section of bassist Laura Ballance and drummer Jon Wurster. For Superchunk, this isn't a time to be asleep or silent; they're more aggressive and direct here than they've been since On the Mouth, their 1993 classic.

Penned between November 2016 and February 2017, these 11 songs document McCaughan's real-time struggle with Trump's election and the systems that allowed it: "Lost My Brain" describes nights of lost sleep and days of lost faith that first followed the vote. The song "Reagan Youth" takes a more sober and analytical approach to apparent political disaster, recognizing that it's hard for radical kids playing rock shows in underground clubs to keep up the rebellion against well-heeled elected officials and those who voted for them. "All for You" begs for fisticuffs with fellow citizens who lack empathy for others and concern for the future, but "Bad Choices" aims to moderate the impulse to click on all the bait and obsess over all the news. There's more to activism — especially sustaining it, McCaughan implies — than outrage.

That's exactly what works so well about What a Time to Be Alive. Yes, it's a full-throated, unapologetic response to a united state of turmoil during the last year, but it's one of the most fun and contagious records Superchunk has ever made, too. The hooks are as sharply crafted as they are worded, and the playing is as jubilant as it is caustic. Superchunk turns Chelsea Manning's name into an unlikely singalong and a song about global warming into a rallying cry for equality.

What a Time to Be Alive is the sound of four old friends presenting a unified front, "hoping to find some kind of light" amid the darkness. Maybe you didn't expect a band of fiftysomethings to make what's arguably the Trump era's first triumphant protest record. But somebody had to do it.

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Grayson Haver Currin
[Copyright 2024 NPR]