I have been following Superchunk since 1994, when i first heard them on the radio right after Foolish came out, and i rushed to a CD store to get their latest. Wow, typing out that sentence makes me feel old. Here is another way of phrasing it: In the last century, i first heard the band on a non-digital streaming service and rushed to purchase the music on a now-obsolete physical format at a brick and mortar store...
No, that is not making me feel any less like a fogey. But i guess it's okay. I have been listening to Superchunk for 24 years now, and i have a lot of experience with the band. And What a Time To Be Alive is a good, solid Superchunk record that fans of the band (many of whom, like me, remember them from last century!) will enjoy. However, the band is doing nothing new here, so they aren't going to convince anyone else to enjoy what they are doing. In other words, you know what you are getting into with this album and if you are inclined to like, then i bet that you will enjoy it, but otherwise it probably will not thrill you.
But for those of us who are Superchunk fans, well, our superior humanity will be thrilled by these eleven new tunes.
The record kicks off with the crunchy pop punk of the title track, a song that instantly sounds like Superchunk. This is what they do, and they do it well. Why mess with success?
The second track is Lost My Brain, a minute and a half of loud pounding punk rock. It hearkens back to their debut record, the remaster of which, coincidentally, is the most recent Superchunk purchase i made, so it is close in memory. The remaster must have brought it into memory for them too, because this really could have been an outtake from 1990. It is better recorded, but the spirit and the speed is the same.
The next two tunes remind me of their Indoor Living period from 1997. The first is Break the Glass which was released in 2017 as a single. I like the breakneck speed of the song, and the way the music parts on the chorus and the guitar plays a plinking reggae beat. Sabrina Ellis of A Giant Dog adds backing vocals on the second chorus, a subtle but nice effect, and then we get a great Jim Wilbur guitar solo. This one hits all the sweet spots that Superchunk know so well.
Continuing with the late 90s, the guitars on Bad Choices are a little more subtle, but Jon Wurster's drumming is loud and insistent. The song is pretty minimal but with thundering drums, something the band experimented with on Indoor Living, but it explodes on the chorus. Mac sneers his words throughout the song, while i don't think he really sneered his way through Indoor Living. Still, it's a good tune.
If you bought the record on vinyl, like i did, the A-side ends with Dead Photographers. I like this song a lot. It is a nice rumbling Superchunk tune, like what they were doing on Here's Where the Strings Come In. Catchy and fun, with a chorus you can sing along with.
Side B kicks off with Erasure, which Superchunk released as a single to go with the album release. It is, well, meh, just kind of plodding without really getting going. There is a great line in it though, towards the beginning where Mac sings "our empathy weaponized". That's a nice turn of phrase. On the choruses, both Stephen Merritt (Magnetic Fields, et al.) and Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) are credited with adding some backing vocals. To be honest, i don't think they really add anything. Even Stephen Merritt cannot make this song exciting!
The next track is the first single released back in June of 2017, I Got Cut. I like this song okay, but the more i listen to it, the more the lyrics sound forced. I mean, at one point Mac rhymes "family planning" with "Chelsea Manning", which just seems to be there for the cultural zeitgeist and not because either seems to go with the overall lyrical direction of the tune. Your mileage may vary, of course. Still, Jim and Mac's guitars are a worthy roar.
The next tune roars nicely as well. It's called Reagan Youth and i guess is a homage to the old punk band of that name. I am not familiar with them (although they are touring this summer, opening for T.S.O.L. at The Masquerade in Atlanta). This is a nice, simple, old school punk song in the vein of the Ramones. I almost expect to hear Jim and Laura chant "Hey! Ho!" during the bridge!
Cloud of Hate is another track that sounds like it belongs on their first record. Pedro the Lion's David Bazan adds a little extra depth to the choruses, and again, he feels superfluous, like Superchunk wanted to have him do something but they are not a band like A Tribe Called Quest where they can just give a guest vocalist a verse to write and sing. Still, this is a nice fast rocker.
I like All for You and i like the bass riff that Laura Ballance plays to drive this one along. It is her best performance on the record, a real standout for her. Overall it is a nice rumbling tune that reminds me of the stuff that Superchunk have been doing since their "reunion album" back in 2010.
And finally the record ends with a slower pop tune, Black Thread. Like All for You, this is mature Superchunk, and is a nice song that will please the fans, like me.
I enjoy the record. I have listened to it a lot since it came out, and i find that it grabs me more than I Hate Music did. I mean, i like that record too, but something about it never clicked with me at the time it was released. Something about What a Time To Be Alive seems right for the moment. Like so many times in the past, a new record by Superchunk is the soundtrack to my life.
And after 24 years, i kind of expect that, and welcome it.
Now stay the hell offa my lawn!