Superchunk records don’t usually come with an angle. Like fellow indie rock institutions Spoon and Yo La Tengo, Superchunk cranks out great albums with such workmanlike regularity that they’re easy to take for granted. “What a Time to Be Alive,” however, finds the Chapel Hill band grappling with the emotional fallout of the Trump presidency, making it easily classifiable as their “political” album. Though there’s no shortage of punk-style venting, Superchunk’s main response to the current administration is to turn anger and despair into catchy, exuberant rock ’n’ roll — in other words, to make another great Superchunk record.
“What a Time to Be Alive” bristles with anxious energy; even by Superchunk’s over-caffeinated standards, it keeps an unrelenting pace. “Reagan Youth” pays homage to the titular ’80s hardcore band, and sub-two-minute stompers “Lost My Brain” and “Cloud of Hate” are worthy additions to that lineage. Singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan also channels classic hardcore in his vitriolic lyrics. There’s no room for ambiguity in lines like “All these old men won’t die too soon” or “You scare the kids/I hope you die scared.” Leave it to Superchunk, though, to turn these brutal sentiments into ear candy, dousing them in sugary melody.
Political music often devolves into self-righteous finger-pointing, but “What a Time to Be Alive” takes a more thoughtful approach. Much of the record concerns itself not with easy Trump-bashing, but with the thornier question of how to remain compassionate and level-headed in the face of hatred and chaos. The bittersweet melancholy of “Break the Glass” and “Erasure” will resonate with anyone who’s lost sleep compulsively checking the news on the phone, while “Bad Choices” urges listeners to “meet your weird neighbors once in a while/take a deep breath of the air.” When indie stars like the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield show up on harmonies, their brief cameos send a powerful message: To get through this, we need to put our egos aside and work together.
Indie rock generally prioritizes the personal over the political, but current events have left many bands feeling compelled to take a stand. Give Superchunk credit for engaging with this fraught political moment while staying true to themselves. “What a Time to Be Alive” is a vital, cathartic record, and if the next few years are as stressful as the last one, we’re going to need it.Terence Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @terence_cawley