Not long after the 2016 election wrapped, people shocked and disconsolate at the outcome started looking for a silver lining. One prevailing school of thought was that disquieting and extremist political climates galvanize artists into codifying their values into urgent and authentic art. Put another way: the incoming administration would, to coin a phrase, make punk rock great again.
"What a Time to Be Alive," the newest and perhaps angriest record from vaunted indie rock institution Superchunk, may be the most compelling evidence yet in favor of that argument, but Mac McCaughan's still not buying it.
"We don't need to suffer through a fascist dictator to get great music," the Superchunk singer and guitarist says. "That's not a great door prize compared to the cost."
An indie rock band rooted in punk and hardcore, Superchunk has resistance to entrenched systems of power encoded into its ethos. Indeed, this is a band with politically active members — the band rallied for President Barack Obama in its native North Carolina, and last year donated proceeds from 7-inch sales to Planned Parenthood and the Southern Poverty Law Center. But its music has never been outwardly political.
"What a Time to Be Alive," though, seethes with scorn for the enablers of the Donald Trump era. Written almost entirely between November 2016 and February 2017, the album doesn't just rail against those in power and the people who put them there, it superbly articulates the anger, anxiety and frustration of the saturating socio-political miasma in the months since the presidential election. And it does so with an uncompromising and uncommon brass. Across all their records — "What a Time to Be Alive" is its 11th — Superchunk never has written such defiant social commentary.
"I think it would be odd for us to make a record now that ignored what was going on," McCaughan says. "It definitely didn't start out deliberate, but the result of the election and the lead-up to the election were very anxiety-inducing for a lot of people. I think in that situation, if you're making art or music or whatever it is, it's just going to naturally be the subject that you're drawn to."
From the gate, it's clear that McCaughan and company -- guitarist Jim Wilbur, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Laura Ballance, who no longer tours with the group, are pissed. The opening title track comes out swinging, McCaughan inveighing against "the scum, the shame, the fucking lies" permeating the zeitgeist before hissing the title line with biting sarcasm. Old white men with regressive belief systems are the most frequent target of Superchunk's ire: "You scare the kids," McCaughan fulminates on the supreme hardcore tantrum "Cloud of Hate," confessing that he hopes they die scared, too.
But despite the album's driving force, McCaughan is careful not to classify it as a political album or protest music. "What a Time to Be Alive," he says, offers no direct solutions and proposes no policies; what it offers instead is catharsis, a way to meet rage and angst head-on.
"I think it's a real challenge to not take that anger and anxiety everywhere with you," McCaughan says. "The challenge is, there are so many people who feel this way, how do you make a record that's not so obvious, that makes you just go, 'Well, duh, we all feel like that'? I think that's a real pitfall of political music or protest songs, which is that it can just be so obvious and on the nose that you're just preaching to the choir."
To that end, "What a Time to Be Alive" is also resolutely sanguine. The song "Bad Choices" offers some remedies for sanity amid shock and chaos: Get out in the fresh air, take a deep breath, meet your weird neighbors once in a while. "Break the Glass" encourages action: "Break the glass, don't use the door," McCaughan sings. "This is what the hammer's for." On "Erasure," the band offers its own small silver lining, a reassurance to fans and like-minded people as well as a rejoinder to those attempting to erase history and doctrine. "We don't just disappear," McCaughan sings before the song's last chorus. "We're still here."
"I think that there's hopefully a shred in all the songs of — I don't know if hope is the right word, but positivity," McCaughan says. "It's not a record that's just resigned to, 'Oh well, I guess we're fucked,' you know? That would be a bummer." S
Superchunk performs with Bat Fangs at the Broadberry on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance, $20 at the door. thebroadberry.com.