Review: 'What a Time To Be Alive' considers current politics

by Habib Sabet | 2/23/18 1:30am

If you’ve been out of the obscure and cultish garage punk loop, you have probably never heard of the indie rock band Superchunk. Formed in 1989 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Superchunk exploded onto the counterculture scene of the early ’90s, producing seven albums over the course of the decade. The group took a brief hiatus soon after the turn of the millennium, eventually producing only two albums between 2002 and 2014. After releasing its tenth album, “I Hate Music” in 2013, Superchunk returned last Friday with the politically charged and triumphantly subversive album “What a Time To Be Alive.”  At a time when punk music seems to be increasingly dwarfed by the allure of hip-hop and electronic music, “What a Time to Be Alive” is a collection of catchy and energetic songs that simultaneously presents a commercially agreeable message and returns to the genre’s roots in counterculture. Moreover, it’s a visceral and sincere reaction to our country’s recent escapades.

The album’s title defines the mood of its songs, lamenting our nation’s current political and social landscape. In the chorus of the titular track, lead singer Mac McCaughan belts, “To see the rot in no disguise/Oh what a time to be alive” as he bemoans how the sordid underbelly of American society has bubbled to the surface. 

     The middle-aged quartet displays maturity in its frustration at the modern political climate, taking part in the blame as McCaughan adds, “We can’t pretend to be surprised/Oh what a time to be alive.”  

This anger manifests itself in a veritable call to action in tracks like “Break the Glass,” which promotes — as the title suggest — urgent damage control. In “Bad Choices,” the group (albeit begrudgingly) calls for unity in a time of complete social discord. McCaughan denounces bigotry as he sings, “But all your bad choices/ Are gonna cause suffering,” but he also peacefully preaches acceptance in a verse: “You gotta get out/Out and about/Meet your weird neighbors.”  

The band doesn’t sacrifice the intense drive and catchy rhythms of its earlier work to deliver its new message. As McCaughan said in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, “You can put this record on and just rock out. In some ways I think that the music balances out the subject matter of the lyrics.” The band rages full throttle through the 32-minute album, with one guitar-driven melody after another. Superchunk’s vitality is almost as impressive as it is entertaining.
“Reagan Youth” draws an obvious parallel between Superchunk’s impassioned album and the ’80s punk scene that largely developed in response to former President Ronald Reagan’s morally conservative administration. But what is much more interesting is the song’s descending riff and Jim Wilbur’s biting guitar solo. “Erasure,” an indictment of a population in thrall of antiquated bigotry, features playful synths and beautiful harmonies from two featured artists: The Magnetic Fields’ lead singer Stephen Merritt and Waxahatchee’s founder Katie Crutchfield. The interlocking call and response of the guitars in the beginning of “All for You” provides a brief melodic lull before the song ramps up to the album’s standard tempo and intensity. 

What is perhaps the most impressive about “What A Time To Be Alive” is its ability to revive an ostensibly vanishing art to convey a modern political message. Superchunk’s album uses the traditionally riotous music of punk rock, a genre whose anger and energy perfectly articulates the band’s message of urgency. In a sense, the album’s call to arms is twofold: There’s an obvious political message denouncing President Donald Trump’s philosophy and approach, and a more covert demand for a new age of subversive artistry. McCaughan sums up the message in “I Got Cut”: “All these old men won’t die too soon/ […] Closing my eyes, making room/ Oh, for somebody else.”