"I hate music, what is it worth? / Can't bring anyone back to this earth," the band Superchunk sings. It's the kind of sentiment you'd imagine someone blurting out with bitter spontaneity, but it's not really music the band hates; it's the despair and grief to which their music bears witness. Superchunk's new downbeat-but-upbeat album, I Hate Music, is dedicated to a close friend who died last year. More broadly speaking, the record explores various kinds of loss — of innocence, of youth, of friendships, of passions that struggle and sometimes fail to survive.
Superchunk formed in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1989 and became an important force in indie rock. In addition to leading the band, singer-songwriter Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance co-founded their own company, Merge Records, which became one of the most successful independent labels ever, with acts that include Arcade Fire, Spoon and The Magnetic Fields.
Throughout this album, McCaughan pushes his middle-aged adenoids into ever more plangent tones, even as the guitar work of Jim Wilbur maintains a ferocious denial of the doubt that lurks within most of the lyrics. This creates a sparky tension in the music. The voice sometimes fights against the instruments; at other times, the downer vibe triumphs.
Sometimes, they achieve a lovely unity. "What will keep us upright?" goes a line in the song "Low F." The answer, a few lines later, is love, with the typically Superchunkian afterthought, "at the risk of sounding obvious." The band needs not fret about that; obviousness is a quality Superchunk has avoided for more than 20 years now. Indeed, this is one of the few groups to have emerged from the early '90s whose work has actually improved as its members have grown older and wiser. In 2010, after a nine-year gap in its discography, Superchunk released one of its best albums, Majesty Shredding, and there are a number of superlative moments on this new one, including "Low F" and the wonderfully vivid road song "Trees of Barcelona."
The final song on I Hate Music is titled "What Can We Do," and it finds Superchunk in one of its periodic quiet moments. It has a line about the negativity and pessimism that surrounds the band, even as the pounding drums of Jon Wurster slam out a denial of those sentiments. When joined by the guitars and a soaring vocal, that drumbeat becomes a heartbeat — a sign of Superchunk's enduring health and vigor.