If I hated music, nothing would please me more than to start an independent rock band and, staying true to my punk ethos, start a record label to release my awesome singles. Eventually, we’d become one of the most influential independent labels in the country. We’d tour for decades and release music from some of the most important musicians of our age. And despite going up against some of the world’s biggest pop stars, one of our bands would send their good odds to hell and take home the prestigious Album Of The Year Grammy. Hell, my band would continue to churn out rockin’ albums for 24 years (and counting) because, man, I fucking hate music.
Sound familiar? Minus the rancor, it’s the very abbreviated story of Superchunk and Merge Records founders Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. The long version of the story is infused with love and excitement for both music and life. Because if anything, the title to Superchunk’s tenth album, I Hate Music, which sounds incendiary on its surface, is a balance of jaded ambivalence, spitfire nuance and polar emotions that run the spectrum of a life on stage and in recording studios. The Chapel Hill, N.C. rockers haven’t missed a beat since their inception in 1989, but a life spent immersed in indie rock in your 20s can’t be the same as life nearly a quarter century later.
Their tenth album’s namesake comes from a line in the excellent “Me And You And Jackie Mittoo”: “I hate music, what is it worth?/ Can’t bring anyone back to this earth,” Mac McCaughan sings. A bit of hard truth for many, the title, line and song resonate with the joy-and-frustration relationship of the creator to his art and getting lost in the music and the road. The video for “Me And You And Jackie Mittoo” has a poppier attitude, more in line with the beat of the track than the lyrics, showing folks holding up their favorite album cover. McCaughan appropriately displays an album from Skatalites founder, the late Jackie Mittoo.
The sound is still uniquely Superchunk. Opener “Overflows” pulls you in over a feedback-laced intro, acoustic guitars and a stomping drum beat. The slow burn leads into the deceptively upbeat track before flinging the rest of the album into the muddy waters of ruminative lyrics and thundering drums. “Staying Home” is the record’s hyperquick punk piece that would translate more literally to the band as “majesty shredding” and mid-tempo “Trees Of Barcelona” is another surge into the life of Superchunk as musicians. Drums clamor steadily in the background while “What Can We Do,” the six-minute closer, admits that “our little island might be sinking.”
But I Hate Music is staunchly about Superchunk as humans dealing with the pangs of day-to-day existence. For one, Ballance won’t be touring with the band due to hyperacusis. But the real weight lies elsewhere. The album is dedicated to David Doernberg, a close friend of the band, who passed away from cancer in March of last year. And you can’t help but feel every emotional charge in the lyrics.
Penultimate track and early single “FOH” displays a maturity shown by performers who have seen everything from minor glitches to massive technical issues and can still roll with the punches. The concern isn’t that “The drums exploded and our amps are down but Matthew’s got it wired and we’re coming around,” but rather an imploring cry to the invisible sound engineer, “Tell me you’re coming around.” The track is surely on the poppy end of the Superchunk spectrum and would be an easy means to get a crowd going, but is it all smiles—or is it even about the music—when “I smile and sob ’cause I can’t get out”?
I Hate Music isn’t a missive on being an aging rocker as much as it’s reflective of the wisdom and maturity garnered as a touring band in what is too often—and outright mistakenly—only considered the realm of the young and starry-eyed. Only Superchunk does it with the same unstoppably jaunty bounce and screaming guitars that defined (No Pocky For Kitty) and redefined (Majesty Shredding) their still palpable sound and made them leaders in their genre: guitars wail, McCaughan hollers the anthems and John Wurster has a series of supreme drum fills on every track.
And yet, with all the confusion, sadness and momentary elation, Superchunk always has been, and remains, a triumphant little rock band. It’s like a jaded McCaugnhan says with the album’s topsy-turvy rallying cry: “I hate music … But I got nothing else, so I guess here we go.”