It’s fair to say that over their near 30-year career Superchunk has never made a bad album. That’s notable for just about any band, let alone one completely left to their own devices and not driven by any commercial concerns. (Of course, that latter point actually probably has a great deal to do with their consistency, but I digress.) All that said, one could be forgiven if they overlooked or felt indifferent toward some of the band’s early-2000s releases. It’s not that those records didn’t have their merits, far from it, rather the band was moving forward, and by default those records lacked some of the youthful vigor and verve that made Superchunk one of the defining bands of the 1990s underground.
Now jump to 2018 and the American pre-apocalypse, and you’ll encounter a band with a renewed sense of urgency and an astounding sense of energy and purpose that belies their collective middle-age. What a Time to Be Alive (Merge Records) is not only a record that every Superchunk fan should love, it’s a genuine artistic statement that should be embraced by anyone that appreciates good rock music. Songs like “Break the Glass,” “I Got Cut,” the political-screed-as-hardcore-history-lesson “Reagan Youth,” and the title track rush out of the speakers and swoop up the listener in a punk rock grandeur on par with “Precision Auto,” “Hyper Enough,” or “Slack Motherfucker.” Of course, now is not a time for slacking, and Superchunk know that.
Mac McCaughan’s lyrics have never been literal, yet he’s always managed to get his point across. And while there’s nothing here that is so expressly political you’ll mistake it for a Crass screed, there’s also no denying the specter of arguably the most malignant political force America has encountered in its modern incarnation. McCaughan and Superchunk refuse to despair, though; they know exactly what the hammer is for, to paraphrase one lyric, and offer an album that functions not so much as soundtrack for the dubious “#Reistance,” but rather for waking up and existing with a renewed sense of purpose, however one chooses to personally articulate it, in a time where that’s maybe easier said than done. Look, a record like this helps; it’s just that simple.
Indeed, that our current political hellscape was perhaps a genesis for such a record should not be viewed as unfortunate. This is precisely the kind of “political” album we so desperately need at this time. It’s inspiring not only in its messaging and its songwriting, but likewise as representative of the idea that four people can play music together for decades, skirt the conventions demanded of them by the market, by the mainstream, and even, at times, by their own audience and make genuinely potent and meaningful art. Viva la Superchunk.