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Superchunk - Wild Loneliness (Merge Records)

Superchunk - Wild Loneliness
2 March 2022

Bless Mac McCaughan’s voice. I don’t mean to jinx it, but I feel confident in saying that we could get another ten albums out of Chapel Hill’s indie godparents Superchunk and his firecracker affect will never give way to gravel. Youthful but never jejune, his excited yelps and coos have led the band straight into our hearts to camp out for decades. The sound has matured and refined, but the core ethos has always remained unshaken. It’s the reason why “Phone Sex” would sound insane on the self-titled debut some twenty years earlier, but “Slack Motherfucker” would feel right at home on Majesty Shredding some twenty years later (band members may agree or disagree, depending on who you ask). Wild Loneliness is their twelfth full-length—fourth post-hiatus—and if you’ve spent your fandom wondering which is smarter, their hooks or refrains, this latest effort will only provoke more evidence supporting both sides.

During respective 1999 and 2001 releases Come Pick Me Up and Here’s to Shutting Up, the foursome employed noticeably experimental production techniques and instrumental additions to their work, drifting away from the blistering composition of previous efforts. It’s a different mode that the band works in, slightly more sophisticated perhaps but just as riotous and passionate in soul and intention. One might prefer their typical beats-per-minute count to this breezier style; even bassist Laura Ballance once jokingly(?) stated that while playing live material from Indoor Living, their first markedly slower and calmer effort, she found herself nodding off on stage.

2010 saw the group return in full force from a hiatus, steadily putting out three rippers from there, reminiscent of classic entries like Here’s Where the Strings Come In. Wild Loneliness is the first record since the comeback that easily fits in with their initial late period. Lush backing from strings stalwart Owen Pallett and fluttering saxophone via Andy Stack of Wye Oak are but a few of the distinctly grandiose touches across the whole of the album. Comparatively, these gestures represent a radical shift in their consistency, augmenting the songs from standard fare to something more ornate, yet still right at home.

What a Time to Be Alive, their last LP, was pointedly pissed. It’s there in the title, it’s there in the fucking release date. Good luck not crafting music in the Trump Era that wasn’t forged in the fires of unrest and unthinkable sorrow. A strong conscience has always beat underneath, but this was their first openly political record. Past tributes to cultural icons Marion Brown and Yayoi Kusama were about as referential as they ever treaded, but then came time for lyrics like “free Chelsea Manning” and “there was one more Reagan Youth” among a litany of other direct contemporary grievances. Wild Loneliness contains a mere fraction of that bite, but can safely be referred to as their second political record. Save for “Refracted” which passes as a plausible outtake from What a Time, they trade the overt rage and quick tempos this go-around for world-weariness and a greater focus on hooks. The result is winsome and far more evergreen than its predecessor, featuring just as many guest appearances that don’t fall to the wayside as often.

Acoustic guitar can be found on just about every track here, quite possibly a result of the album being recorded entirely at the members’ houses with none of them playing at the same time. I conjecture that the isolationist approach, due naturally to pandemic circumstances, may have led to the reliance on the heavy acoustic foundation. Whether it was a matter of blueprinting or not though, it’s easily the most to appear on a Superchunk album ever, flavoring numbers like the pastoral “Set It Aside” or the rollicking “On the Floor”; the latter boasting a honkytonk ramble echoing that of R.E.M.’s “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”. It’s no surprise that the penman of that song’s spiritual ancestor, Mike Mills, provides vocal harmonies.

“We used to write this song with snow piled up outside,” McCaughan sings on “Endless Summer”, the beleaguered, infinitely hummable lead single containing every likeable Superchunk trademark, plus even more lovely harmonies to boot from those Teenage Fanclub boys, Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley. Deft hi-hat and snare courtesy of drummer Jon Wurster propel this poppy, jangly, sighing anti-ode to climate change. A wizened voice, head half-buried in hand, projects these sentiments throughout. Loneliness is an analogue for the hangover that follows What a Time’s fierce galvanization; an understandable progression given the years in between records. Much change has been demanded and very little has been delivered. Superchunk matched our outrage then, and now in 2022, amid a more divided nation and depressingly farcical world at large, match our bafflement.

Baffled, yes, but far from defeatist. Looking at the bookends, we begin with the stately, wincing “City of the Dead”. Benefiting from the increasing grandiosity of Pallett’s strings, McCaughan details the mundanity and chagrin that comes with a shit reality, praying both for a revolution and that the next generation better heed the caution of history. On the other end, “If You’re Not Dark”, a steady stomper bolstered by Sharon Van Etten in the album’s most singalong refrain, pleads for sympathy over forgiveness for the overwhelming stress that accompanies social consciousness: “If you’re not dark, at least in some little part / What are you on? And can we get some?” Although it dabbles heavily in this brand of cynicism, Wild Loneliness ultimately resembles a licking of wounds rather than a shrug, while revisiting a more tunefully ambitious era of the band. You’d have to be living under a rock to not feel its balm.

You may purchase the record here.