If there was a time to listen to Superchunk after its initial punk-entrance in 1989 (“Slack Motherfucker”) it may be now. In the early ’90s — see Tossing Seeds (Singles 89-91) — Superchunk’s medium had been largely its only message. But albums such as 1999’s Come Pick Me Up and the new release, Here’s to Shutting Up, convey a more complex message and a wholly different function. After more than a decade of recording and touring, Superchunk has shifted its role as a 7-inch troubadour to a group of introspective studio craftsmen (and woman) and, in the process, has posited a new reason — beyond an easy-to-cop D.I.Y. didacticism — to exist.
The change is evident from the opening song, “Late-Century Dream.” Mac McCaughan’s vocals are up front and clear; the pace is moderate, even majestic. Lyrics — sometimes a Superchunk strong point and other times a vague Achilles heel — paint the existential dilemma of the record: “Everybody lives in a knot/Everybody’s trying to make space around what they think they got.” Later, in “Phone Sex,” amid a delicate country arrangement of lap steel and violin, McCaughan sings, “Plane crash footage on TV/I know that that could be me” before giving away the isolated, survivor mentality of the main character: “Keep your nose down/Keep the ice off your wings.”
It’s not all intimate ’n’ uncomfortable — two emotions rarely tackled by indie-pop groups in any era. There are rockers, such as “Rainy,” “Out on the Wing” and “Art Class.” These three nod to the bread and butter of Superchunk’s overall approach since day one: power-pop filled with epic chords via McCaughan, single-note bass lines provided by Laura Balance and the chugga-chugga rhythms of drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur.
But in the violin lilt of “Florida’s on Fire” or the acoustic guitar solos and building drums of “What Do You Look Forward To?” preaching to the converted stops and a whole new conversion sets in: “Please forgive what I said on the phone last night/We were lost/We weren’t lost/But it was late all right.”
The power of eight original albums and enough years to realize that nothing — even the institutionalized ranting of indie rock — should be taken for granted has set in. Now might be the time, whether you are 32 or 13, to hear from a band that knows better.
Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org.