Imagine my excitement at the prospect of reviewing I Hate Music, the new LP from Chapel Hill-based indie-rock royalty Superchunk. Then it occurred to me: A record of such magnitude will surely be drowned in press, researched exhaustively and praised/filleted with great passion by anyone still “cool” enough to have “opinions”. With this in mind, let’s skip all speculation concerning the ironic and/or tongue-in-cheek meaning of the title, I Hate Music. Let’s also go ahead and skip the fact that, despite forever changing the landscape of independent music by creating Merge Records, Superchunk has managed to walk that sweet line of credibility and longevity. For the sake of all concerned, let’s just focus on the songs.
“Overflows” opens with a fade in of feedback and dissonance that temporarily hints at a shoegaze burner before a solo acoustic guitar strum and Mac McCaughan’s voice announce the return of that later-era Superchunk pop-stomp. It’s a voice that cannot be shaken, a tool that has grown in depth and sincerity over the past three decades, and it’s beautiful. The song itself is the kind of accomplishment that any new indie band would be instantly sainted for writing, catchy and tense all the same. Second track “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” must certainly be the underdog contender for song of the year. When Mac proclaims “We’re filling the space between all of the notes, but I got nothing left so I guess, here it goes,” before reminiscing on piling in vans, the open road and feet on the dash imagery, you can’t quite tell if it’s genuine nostalgia or a barb at all things generic in modern independent music. The relentless melody of this song cannot be understated and it’s over all too soon. The Monkees never sounded so catchy.
Lest you be concerned, I Hate Music is not an all pop affair. “Void” picks up the pace with a McCaughan trademark guitar solo that reminds you that he’s always been one of punk rock’s most underrated guitar shredders. “Staying Home” is even faster out of the gate, a relentless 01:15 punk tune straight from the “Slack Motherfucker” era Superchunk of yesteryear. “Low F” is the kind of pop-punk burner that rewards multiple listening. It also conjures the production and guitar tone that somehow made all those mid-90’s pop bands seem “sincere”. The song could be any other band’s lead single, but not Superchunk.
I Hate Music is ultimately (unfortunately) a top-heavy album. “Trees of Barcelona” is a mostly forgettable track, detailing a reckless and life-affirming adventure in a foreign land that, compared to the rest of the record, falls short of the mark. “Breaking Down” is built on a repetitive riff that gives way to obligatory “oohs” and “aahs” before breaking down itself. “Out of the Sun” is a heavy dose of nostalgia. An end-of-summer jam from the view of a person that remembers all the fleeting romanticism but is old enough to understand the consequences of these transgressions. “Your Theme” and “FOH” coast by mostly unnoticed. A bouncy guitar line here, a sing-a-long breakdown there, both songs are overshadowed by the quality of previous tracks.
Album closer “What Can We Do” is a moody, brooding beast of a bookend. The guitars weave around a stomping beat. The tension and darkness that has been hidden under every track to this point are finally unleashed. “Honey I’ve been thinking, our little island might be sinking” may be the most telling lyric of the whole record. Despite what you may glean from casual listening, I Hate Music is darker than the melodies it hides beneath. Death and loss are common themes throughout, but you can’t help but think that this is just another fit of growing pains for Superchunk. Few have survived the industry so successfully, and in the closing track Mac promises, “I’ll say I love you, I won’t say goodbye.”