Superchunk: Foolish

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Superchunk

Album: Foolish
Label: Merge

The arrival of Superchunk’s fourth album, Foolish, in April 1994 accompanied significant changes for the North Carolina band that, nearly two decades later, have become indie-rock lore. First, Foolish was the band’s first full-length on Merge Records, the indie label run by guitarist-vocalist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. Now on its own away from Matador, which released its preceding albums, Superchunk had no label advance to fund the studio sessions. That made for a breakneck pace at Pachyderm Studios with producer Brian Paulson—17 songs in three days. As drummer Jon Wurster writes in the new reissue’s extensive liner notes, he stared glumly at a hat Kurt Cobain had set on fire during Nirvana’s In Utero sessions and thought, “I’ll bet those guys had the luxury of doing more than one take.”

But the story from Foolish that gets most of the attention is the breakup of the romantic relationship between Ballance and McCaughan, which informed the writing of the album. To what extent is a matter of debate: In Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big And Stayed Small, guitarist Jim Wilbur dismisses the assertion that Foolish is Ballance and McCaughan’s break-up album. McCaughan backs that up: “Some songs start off about one thing, and by the end of the last verse, you’re in a different country,” he says in Our Noise. Wurster mentions the break-up in the liner notes, but adds he doesn’t know how much it informed the lyrics and that he didn’t “recall any awkwardness while touring.” He must’ve not understood why Ballance asked soundmen on that tour to take McCaughan’s vocals out of her monitor. “Because the words were making me cry,” she says in Our Noise. “I would be on stage, playing these songs, and I would be crying. It was terrible. It was a hard tour.” 

McCaughan has never printed lyrics in Superchunk’s albums, making it more difficult in 1994 to parse the meanings of the songs. But Foolish is an undeniably more somber album, especially compared to its predecessor, On The Mouth. “I didn’t realize it while we were making it, but there’s a darkness to Foolish that doesn’t shade other Superchunk records,” Wurster writes. Where preceding Superchunk albums opened with ragers (particularly On The Mouth’s phenomenal “Precision Auto”), Foolish starts with the contemplative, heartbreaking “Like A Fool,” which builds slowly on twinkling guitar notes for a full minute and a half before McCaughan’s vocals come in. For an album made at such a harried pace, “Like A Fool” sounds deliberate and wistful, practically begging to soundtrack a sad montage in a movie. It only gets rougher on “The First Part” (“How long must the first part last / before we make our respective messes?”), but at least its quicker tempo, intersecting guitar lines, and cheerful instrumental coda distract from the lyrics’ palpable sadness. 

Foolish is hardly morose, though. “Water Wings,” “Saving My Ticket,” “Without Blinking,” and especially “Why Do You Have To Put A Date On Everything” capture Superchunk’s signature sound, with hook-laden, poppy, punky songs. But it’s definitely moodier; “Driveway To Driveway”—whose video nodded to The Philadelphia Story, with McCaughan and Wurster playing rivals for Ballance’s affection—is basically a power ballad, and “Keeping Track” and the album-closing “In A Stage Whisper” offer the album’s most subdued moments.

As beloved as Foolish became—it was Merge’s top-selling album for years, and many of its tracks remain in Superchunk’s live set—the album suffered from a flat mix that often had McCaughan’s vocals competing with the instruments to be heard. The remastered Foolish beefs up the sound, but the album could have used a remix too. McCaughan’s vocals still sound awfully thin, especially at the beginning of “Why Do You…,” where the backup vocals remain barely audible. The reissue comes bundled with a digital download of bonus material, which includes a full set from a 1994 show in Minneapolis, three acoustic songs from the “Driveway To Driveway” single, and three mushy Foolish demos that sound like they were recorded on a boombox. The five other songs from the Foolish sessions that didn’t make it onto the album—“Connecticut,” “Basement Life,” “Home At Dawn,” “Foolish” (a different take on “Like A Fool”) and “Who Needs Light”—appeared on 1995’s essential “vault-clearer,” Incidental Music.

It would’ve been nice to have remastered versions of those songs too, especially because the bonus demos won’t warrant more than one listen, and the acoustic tracks were previously available. But the live set has some nice moments, including a rare performance of the B-side “Cadmium” and some funny banter from Wilbur.

All these years later, Foolish remains a fascinating portrait of Superchunk at a crossroads, its future by no means guaranteed. The situation stabilized by 1995’s superior Here’s Where The Strings Come In (also recently reissued), and Superchunk became one of the decade’s most important indie bands. Foolish reflects the strain from its creation, but captures some of the band’s finest moments in the process.