erasing clouds

Superchunk, Here's to Shutting Up (Merge)

reviewed by Dave Heaton

It makes sense that so many of the so-called "emo" bands of the last five-to-ten years sound almost exactly like Superchunk, since Superchunk has spent its whole career trying to capture raw emotion. And they've succeeded; their songs simulate that gut feeling you get inside when experiencing any significant emotion as perfectly as I can imagine any music doing.

In the years since they formed, their sound has progressed in favor of capturing emotion in a more nuanced way. Lead singer Mac McCaughan's vocals become move more toward really expressive, articulate singing and concurrently away from punk-rock screaming with each album. And, especially from 1994's Foolish on, their song structures have become more complex. Lately they've also been adding layers to their sound, using other instruments (particularly keyboards, horns, strings) to give their guitar-based rock a prettier texture that helps amplify the emotional impact. Musically speaking, Superchunk's latest album, Here's to Shutting Up, picks up where their last album Come Pick Me Up left off, with an even more varied, lush and at times gentler feeling than that equally fine album had.

What's most important about the changes in Superchunk's sound is the fact that essentially nothing's changed. There's still as much feeling, power and heart as ever, and just as many catchy melodies and killer guitar riffs. What the changes signify is their gradual realization of the possible directions their music can take, the different musical outfits they can wear. That increased diversity in sound is a blessing, is it makes their music more pleasurable to the ears without taking any of its power away. If anything their albums from Foolish on are even more powerful; they might not have as much crunch or fuzz, but they have as much energy and feeling, if not more.

Lyrically, Here's to Shutting Up explores relationships, pain, creating, traveling and other common Superchunk themes with as much smartness, sweetness and poetic mystery as usual. Their lyrics don't always make complete literal sense to me, but they have lines that resonate greatly. One of the more moving tracks is the timely first one, "Late-Century Dream," which comments both on the search for comfort after tragic events and on the intellectual boxes that people naively dream themselves into. Pretty strings take the song upward at the end, mimicking the dreaming action while giving the song sad strength.

Other highlights include the country-tinged long-distance love song "Phone Sex," the high-powered art-world critique "Art Class (Song for Yayoi Kusama)," and the gorgeous, bittersweet ballad "What Do You Look Forward To?" At every step Superchunk imbues their songs with pleasing sonic touches while continuing to kick your ass with rock and roll. Above all though, I can't stress enough how well Superchunk plunge right into your heart. And they do it almost regardless of what they're singing about. It's a musical coup, knocking away the supposed divide between style and substance by using the way they play and sing to deliver an emotional message. Sometimes McCaughan could be singing about absolutely anything and he'd still make me feel like crying--not out of sadness necessarily, but out of the sense of awe that comes when you hear something that seems to really get it, to mimic exactly how you're feeling now or a way that you felt in some heartbreaking moment of the past. The way Superchunk can do that regardless of their lyrics (though those too have power) helps give their music a sort of transcendent grace rare to rock and roll.


Issue 7, October 2001 | next article

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