4-panel digipak with 8-panel poster-style insert.
After the shocking, and for many, demoralizing result of the 2016 election, “I didn’t buy the silver lining some were promoting that ‘well, at least art and music will be great now!’,” says Superchunk co-founder and frontman Mac McCaughan. “Obviously, any sane person would gladly trade four to eight years of terrible music for not having our country dismantled to satisfy the whims of a vengeful child and his enablers.”
That said, good music and art still have a lot to say, and the urgency of current events gave Mac, Laura, Jim, and Jon the momentum to make something new sooner than later. “It would be strange to be in a band, at least our band, and make a record that completely ignored the surrounding circumstances that we live in and that our kids are going to grow up in.” Enter What a Time to Be Alive, Superchunk’s first album in over four years, out February 16, 2018, on Merge Records. It’s a record, says Mac, “about a pretty dire and depressing situation but hopefully not a record that is dire and depressing to listen to.”
Indeed, like so much of Superchunk’s music in the band’s nearly three decades together, the songs on What a Time to Be Alive meet rage and anxiety head-on with the catharsis and exhilaration of loud punk fire and vulnerable pop energy. Like 2013’s I Hate Music, which focused on death, loss, and the role of music in an aging life, the new record brings spirit to the frontlines of pain—it’s as defiant as it is despairing, as much a call to arms as a throwing up of hands.
Written almost entirely between November 2016 and February 2017, What a Time to Be Alive was recorded and mixed by Beau Sorenson, who also worked on I Hate Music. “He’s possibly the first engineer we’ve worked with that I had to ask to turn down the guitars,” says Mac. “Not too much, though.” The record also features more guest backing vocalists than any previous Superchunk album, including Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit), Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), Skylar Gudasz, and David Bazan. “Part of that was wanting a feeling of community,” says Mac. “I think that’s important to not be completely bummed out about everything all the time.”
The title track charges in first and says it all. “Every dumb racist in America saw the election as a signal to come out of their holes,” says Mac (You brushed your teeth and found your calling / at the bottom of a swamp / There was no air but to be clear / darkness was all you wanted). “The country was built on white supremacy, and these people want to undo any incremental progress that has been made. It is frightening and enough to make you nuts.”
The record travels through the ensuing shock and chaos, from the pointed Fuck Yous (“Bad Choices,” “Cloud of Hate,” “All for You”) to the What Nows (“Lost My Brain,” “Break the Glass”). Merritt and Crutchfield join on “Erasure,” a resonant confrontation of the objective and consequences of fear and hatred. “One goal of a bigot is to erase the history, experience, and existence of anyone they perceive to be ‘other’ than them,” says Mac. “It makes creating your own vision of reality so much easier…”
Despite the album’s driving force, it would be a mistake to call the album political, which suggests it has anything to do with parties, policy, or anything that can be broken down into a rational difference of opinion. “We’re not trying to offer policy solutions in the confines of a three-minute song,” says Mac. “It’s about ‘how do you live / not go crazy’ in the current climate when it seems like every day there’s a new outrage being perpetrated.”