Mac McCaughan sounds really, really tired of being angry and frustrated all the time. It’s arguably the most relatable sentiment on Wild Loneliness, Superchunk’s newest—and most contemplative—album yet. Who among us, after four years of the Trump administration and two years (and counting) of the greatest public health crisis in a century, isn’t exhausted? If there’s a common thread to so many of the memes, blog posts, and expressions of mental health issues that so many people turn to daily in an effort to find some common ground and inspiration, it’s that daily life has been a grueling ordeal for awhile now.
In that vein, the songs on the band’s 12th album (not including essential compilation releases Tossing Seeds and Incidental Music) speak to the listener in a manner that’s direct even for a heart-on-sleeve romantic like McCaughan. After 2018’s What A Time To Be Alive emitted such a cry of anger, perhaps the change of pace—slower tempos, sunnier melodies, reflective themes—is inevitable. Being pissed-off can feel good (and cathartic, when paired with such barn-burning songs), but it’s harder to embrace those emotions in the long run. At the end of the day, when you’ve expended your allotment of anger, what’s left? That’s where Wild Loneliness comes in.
The difficulty of processing uncertain emotions—and not the “Oh, I’m so passionate, help me” ennui of your average pop song—is the driving theme behind the record. It announces itself clear as day on the title track’s lyrics: “When there’s nowhere left to grind your axe / how do we even think about that?” Then, a damn sax solo erupts. Bet old-school fans of the group didn’t see this coming back when they were head-banging to “Slack Motherfucker,” but it suits Superchunk—McCaughan always sounded a bit like a weary soul, and with this collection of songs about finding meaning in what comes after anger, his worldly sensibilities find an ideal match.
Right out of the mellow gate, the band announces its back in the gentler territory of Here’s To Shutting Up, as “City Of The Dead” kicks off with strings, shakers, and one of the sweetest and simplest beginning to a ‘Chunk record since “Late-Century Dream.” As distorted guitars peal after the first line and McCaughan sings, “So many things you can’t undo / Well you can only push through,” the album is bringing in sweetness to counter the dark clouds.
From there on, it’s a series of sometimes rousing, sometimes mellifluous numbers that work in tandem to convey the themes of struggle, overcoming isolation, and looking for something better. Rocker “Endless Summer,” with its wry reveal of climate-change concerns (“I’m a broken record, I’m a year-round bummer”), is about as classic a Superchunk riff as you can get, at least in terms of the band’s latter-day output. “On The Floor” then drives home the other half of the musical equation, still uptempo but muted, as piano adds some pomp and circumstance to the mix, along with guest vocals from R.E.M.’s Mike Mills.
Sometimes, the quieter numbers almost enter the territory of McCaughan’s solo work in Portastatic, as on “Set It Aside,” where the singer accompanies his voice with piano to a simple rhythm, or even the beginning of closer “If You’re Not Dark,” which slowly builds into an anthemic release of sound, aided by backing vocals from Sharon Van Etten and stately riffing that underscores a push to acknowledge the more pessimistic sides of ourselves, even as we strive for something more (“If you’re not dark / At least in some little part / What are you on?”).
That’s not to say there aren’t songs with some muscle. “Refracting” almost works as a sarcastic counterpoint to the beauty of the title track, with Jon Wurster’s snare pounding on the downbeats as McCaughan confesses, “I try not to judge / But it’s so fun and so distracting.” And as ever, the band has a penchant for stretching the confines of its sounds, adding a complex array of horns to “Highly Suspect,” which fuses a Foolish-era riff to a musical push-and-pull between triumphant cacophony and mannered arrangements.
So many bands settle into a rut as they mature, but what has always kept Superchunk so invigorating through the years is how the music and lyrics have continued to evolve in ways befitting an indie-rock group whose sound has served as the template for a million imitators. You can throw a rock and hit a dozen bands who were influenced by Superchunk—even if some younger acts don’t necessarily realize where the bands they’re pulling from first got inspired—but the fundamental stye of this iconic four-piece has never congealed. You never get the sense the band is trying to recreate its past records. Instead, it’s looking to insert little changes and musical tics, ways to find something new in the long-running sound that’s come before, without losing the Northern Star of its genre-defining style. It’s a wild realization.