By 1997, when Superchunk released Indoor Living, the band seemed destined never to grow up. It still toured the college circuit as if it were forever stuck in its own indie-rock version of Groundhog Day. Lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan still looked the same, the way Dick Clark always looks the same—buzz-cut brown hair, cords, Chucks, short-sleeved shirts. And he still played the lonesome dove, caught forever between a set of buzzing Gibson guitars.
I never gave the album a proper listen. Rather, I dropped out of what Sonic Youth once ridiculously dubbed the “Superchunk Society.” I couldn’t renew my membership—no thanks—after eight years, five albums, two compilations, various side projects and reissues, 30-odd singles, and more shows than I can count. Eight years was enough.
Staying with a band over the course of a decade is hard work, because those of us in the buying public are a fickle bunch. Tastes change. We grow old. Sticking with a band through thick and thin, from the sophomore jinx to the cutout-bin years, and then to the final comeback complete with Artist of the Month rights on VH-1 has become a practically obsolete ideal. Even the third Hootie album can’t compete with the Internet, video games, and Will Smith.
Growing old with a band means accepting the reality that you’re growing old yourself. Who wants to watch band members lose their hair? Or watch his favorite singer go from goofy-drunk to rehab? Rock ‘n’ roll makes it hard for both the artists and the fans to stick around. That’s why the labels invented one-hit wonders and greatest-hits packages—sure-fire ways of keeping things stuck in teendom. No one wants his idols to turn into humans.
Fans pulling out of their 20s—that period between Smash Mouth and the reunion tour—are in a restless state. You want to be older, but how old? Instead of your roots, you end up diversifying your collection. You park yourself in alternative country, re-stock your life with Schoolhouse Rock tapes and Hello Kitty gear. You lose your religion for Rastafarianism.
Listening to the latest Superchunk would mean admitting my age. Which is why it surprised me when I didn’t think twice about buying the band’s new single, “Hello Hawk,” from its recently released seventh album, Come Pick Me Up. I wanted to believe that Superchunk had changed, that it had turned into Blur. It hasn’t. But the band members have learned to play off those years, to display on “Hello Hawk” something they had always failed to achieve: total control of their songs.
“Hello Hawk” charges up and hugs a few turns before McCaughan engages the mike. And then—what the fuck?—comes a falsetto whisper. That’s new. And then some horns breathe into the bridge and beep through the chorus. Everything swoops and dives up until the hushed, moonglow-tinted ending, when it’s back to Bacharach. It’s like the end of a coming-of-age film, when the protagonist gets all of his shit together and sees things with eyes wide open. And all in less than four minutes.
It seems that Superchunk has rediscovered the catchy single, and, more important, rediscovered itself without looking back. The band hasn’t turned into a self-retro machine remaking its past. There is nothing obviously old-school Superchunk about the song. Upon hearing it, I felt 21 again.
“Hello Hawk” is emblematic of the rest of the album, which is a complete jolt from start to finish. The band’s sound hasn’t narrowed; rather, it now incorporates just about anything: New Zealand pop, zig-zag jazz, male-on-male harmonies, lonely folk moments, and metallic guitars that have learned to slow down and space out a bit. While some of those themes and ideas have been kicking around with the band for years, Superchunk now seems to have accepted them—not just as ornamentation, but as elements that are integral to its sound.
If you are going to define indie rock by its most communal, popular breeding ground, the campus quadrangle, then in the old days, Superchunk made music for land-grant universities. Its sound was dumbed down a bit, like the Buzzcocks without the edge, or Iggy Pop if he chugged milk instead of uppers. The band didn’t make the kind of music you dissect when you’re stoned late at night. This wasn’t Pavement or Sonic Youth or even Unrest. The band members were from Chapel Hill, N.C., but never sounded particularly Southern. They referenced nothing but other music that was fast and loud and white.
They weren’t polemical, but pleasingly predictable. Through the early ’90s, you could depend on the ‘Chunk; the band seemed to put out an album a semester. Each full-length worked a similar formula: A member of the Superchunk collective would design the cover (think a depressing version of a Pottery Barn catalog shot), and the record contained no more than 13 songs—small-fisted punches combined with at least two beer ballads—in 40 minutes or less. Superchunk was smart enough to pick “hot” geeks to produce its work: Steve Albini, Rocket From the Crypt’s John Reis, and Brian Paulson (who worked with Slint and Uncle Tupelo).
What mattered most was that you could depend on the band members. They were normal kids—only with amps. They didn’t affect aloof cool or boho artistry. They wrote songs about working in Kinko’s (“Slack Motherfucker”) and a lot about driving (“Driveway to Driveway,” “Precision Auto”). They owned their own label, Merge, but didn’t make a big deal about it. You could depend on them to not sell out with each new album or new tour. They made the dorm room a fun place to be—which was enough.
The band eventually stopped being fast and loud with 1994’s Foolish, its most complete work. It was essentially a breakup album a la Rumours, detailing McCaughan’s and bassist Laura Ballance’s romantic unraveling. It sounded as if the couple worried over each sad song.
A year later, the band went back to being the old Superchunk. In 1997, seeing them play another college gig (this time at James Madison University), it made me think that a day job must be better than growing old doomed to play rock show after rock show where the kids always seemed to stay the same age. The band was fated to pounding Rolling Rocks and chanting through the party favorites. It had become a traveling indie karaoke.
There had ceased to be a payoff for the fans beyond the oldies in the encore set. After nearly a decade, Superchunk was ignoring a basic rule of staying alive in rock ‘n’ roll: To keep the audience interested, you eventually have to either make an experimental album like Pet Sounds or release a double-live album. The only concession McCaughan & Co. made to the formula was to release 1995’s Incidental Music, a singles compilation, with a gatefold.
Come Pick Me Up still retains the genes of old Superchunk albums: Ballance does the cover art, and a hip producer, the avant-guitar guru Jim O’Rourke, tweaks the knobs. But there is only one flat-out punk song, “Good Dreams,” and it’s worth skipping in favor of the rest of the album. The other 12 tracks deliver the payoff fans have been craving. While it’s not Sgt. Pepper, the album is the closest Superchunk can possibly get. It’s still the same wall-of-noise sound, except that now the songs no longer come in two parts, as “Slack Motherfucker” and “What I Do” did, but stretch out into mini-epics. The band has gone Hollywood with its budget inside the studio, building drama and tension with horns, cellos, shabby keyboards, old drum-machine clanks, and transistor radio-esque static.
On the best songs, the band gives itself a face lift: the string section wrapping ribbons around gruff guitars on “Hello Hawk” and “1000 Pounds,” the swaggering horns giving a punch in the arm to “Pink Clouds,” and the fake beats giving a pop to “Tiny Bombs.” McCaughan and guitarist Jim Wilbur bring out new guitar textures for each song as if they’re trying out fabric samples. “Low Branches” and “Tiny Bombs” have the two matching each other in call and response. You’d think they’d become Television.
Every song is fuller for the experimentation. The ballads are no longer content to be just ballads. They rise up, all heavy and humid, and stick, with those feathery harmonies and loose bits of noise and repeated notes. “Tiny Bombs,” the standout track, works this method to death. The song, a ballad about a bitter relationship, must have 10 parts and three different endings. It goes from a folky fadeout to blaring horns, bop-bop harmonies, and tortured guitar-pressed-against-an-amp blitz. Here the band sounds anything but washed up.
On the band’s Web site, superchunk.com, the members provide links to their favorite artists: Mike Watt, Sebadoh, Guided by Voices—bands and musicians I had forgotten about, left behind, or allowed to collect dust in my CD rack. Their history was my history. And for a moment, those Web sites filled me with nostalgia. But Superchunk’s latest album has done something those bands can’t—taken out the dreaded n-word. Superchunk no longer makes you wish for those old glory days. After a decade, being a good band is finally good enough. CP
Superchunk plays the Black Cat with the Rock-a-Teens and Hurricane Lamps Friday, Aug. 20.