“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purported to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. What A Time To Be Alive is the title of the comeback single from North Carolina’s finest purveyors of power-pop, Superchunk. Whilst it may be fascinating to study historical events or times of great turmoil, everything from the bubonic plague to World War I & II, to live through them is a different matter. Freaks In Charge was a Superchunk song whose lyrics were inspired by the presidency of George W. Bush. It should come as no surprise that five years after their last album, the band are back and have aimed their targets directly at Donald Trump. “Sure”, you might cynically respond, “Every artist has to have a thing to make their latest offering interesting” but this is a band who’ve hardly been prolific since their 2001 album Here’s to Shutting Up. Despite the sunshine that flows through Superchunk’s music, these are their protest songs. I believe them when they say that they felt compelled to make this album, and there’s little doubt in the lyrics of this recording as to what the inspiration is. “The scum, the shame, the fucking lies / Oh what a time to be alive“.
It’s an odd pairing, hearing a more abrasive sound with such damning lyrics from a band who write music that makes you want to skip through the grass holding hands with a loved one. The maximised production they’ve adopted since 2010’s Majesty Shredding takes a little bit of the personal edge off the sound that they once had, giving them more in common with bands like The Apples In Stereo than the 90s slacker indie that they once shared a heritage with. The loose elements are still there, like the abundance of guitar noodling over the song whether it fits or not, but with such intensity, it can become grating over time. There’s a rushed feeling to the album, where the respites in moments like the pre-chorus to Break The Glass come as welcome reprieve. The album clocks in at just over 30 minutes, which they seem intent on fitting as much as possible into. In fact, it’s at the moments where the intensity drops a bit where the album shines brightest. I’d take songs like Black Thread over Lost My Brain any day of the week. Superchunk have always been at their best when they’re at their catchiest.
There are some surprising guest spots on the album, most notably The Magnetic Fields’s Stephen Merritt and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield, who lend their voices to Erasure‘s chorus. Disappointingly though, the guest spots are merely octaved mimics of frontman Mac McCaughan’s lyric. It feels like a massive waste of two immensely talented and diverse performers to use them in such a basic manner, but you can’t argue that it does add something to the chorus line. So much protest music that aims its target at Trump uses metaphors and abstract imagery to make their points, which can sometimes be disappointing when dealing with someone who so brazenly speaks his mind regardless of whether or not he has something worth saying. That’s one criticism which can’t be levelled at Superchunk on this album.
“Free Chelsea Manning” they sing on I Got Cut. “I surrender to the flow of shit that came aboard last year. I didn’t learn anything from it and I lost count of all the shame” sings Mac on Lost My Brain. This is visceral imagery on its most basic and universal level. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the song Reagan Youth is about. The simplicity in lyrical and musical content is supposed to call back to the punk era when music was more overtly politicised. A lament that the band aren’t the first ones to make, and does reek a little of being out of touch with how times have changed, craving a recreation of the acts of rebellion that once worked because they were new, exciting and shocking.
That’s not to say that this is a big departure sonically for the band. Though there may be an increase in the intensity, there’s more than enough here for a fan to enjoy, with the last two tracks, in particular, reminding you why people like this band so much in the first place. With the band releasing music so sporadically these days, it’s just good hearing those familiar sounds that distinctly mark the band’s music. I’d love that this album were enough to introduce their great music to a new generation, but I really can’t see this album having that effect. With nothing new to offer musically, I imagine these protest songs will just be preaching to the choir. What a Time To Be Alive is due this week Friday (16 February) via Merge Records.