If it rips, it was written. The yelp that splits an urgent word and the mouth that feels punched is hoarse and hard to stomach. The whole biology gets involved; hairs split, eyes pop, hearts break. A musicology of bruises point to our ability to repair after trauma, “but to be clear, darkness was all you wanted.”
There are smiles in sneers. The same skin that bruises holds us together; skin, like punk and poetry, starts elastic. If the world lurches underfoot, at least we have bruises to remind ourselves what hurt us and how we heal. We sing, off-key, all the while: “what a time to be alive.” An earnest resolution to celebrate life’s precious matter and a barbed reminder that everything’s more absurd than it ever was don’t have to be separate sentences when they live in the same chorus. Our bruises show how we were slapped and shoved under. “And now, just floating to the surface/ Hoping to find some kind of light.”
If it couldn’t survive, it wouldn’t bruise. Superchunk have always been a Chapel Hill DIY project most comfortable cutting pop exuberance with the sharp hook of a town’s darkness. What a Time to Be Alive, the group’s 11th album, arrives in this sprained year that feels simultaneously the best and worst one to be living in. Maybe that’s all the times; maybe living’s enough.
Because if it doesn’t survive, it dies. That’s a simple truth we all learn early on from a lost dog or a missed grandpa or worse, but it’s a hard simple truth. The last time we heard the roil roll of Superchunk’s gospel, in 2014, in what feels like 40,000 epochs ago, the band was reviewing the contract between our bodies and brains, between our living and dying. I Hate Music stared down the fragility of life while eyeing the futility of art-making to preserve that life. We grip lovers’ hands and shake our friends to not despair the truck ton of shit in our days, but we can’t argue the truth of our bodies. “I hate music: what is it worth?/ It can’t bring you back to this earth.”
What a Time to Be Alive, then, exists after impossible resolutions, in the thrall of picking up guitar after laying wood and skeleton and tears in earth. If the world already and always feels like an impossible fit for humans to be in, then punk was the thing boldly, stupidly committed to (re)imagining that space. If death and despondence feel like natural conclusions to being alive, then What a Time to Be Alive is the thrill of churning the natural into the transcendent.
The fade-in vamp that starts the title track is the smallest moment on record here. At the 11-second mark, What a Time to Be Alive hurls all its limbs at the pit and doesn’t look back. “I don’t know/ And I can’t explain,” Mac breaks, over squeal and squall, “Lost my heart/ And I lost my brain.” Bodies and bruises are all over these songs, as if by singing and re-singing stories of their breakage, Mac and Laura and Jim and Jon can conjure our repair. “Break the glass, don’t use the door/ This is what our hands are for,” goes “Break the Glass,” a shouted affirmative, a drum’s head spring. “I could break every bone in my foot kicking down at your dumb door,” goes “Bad Choices,” eyes peeled with a groove. “I got a lifetime of shit decisions/ I might never learn from them,” Mac sings, “but all your bad choices are gonna cause suffering.” Simple hard truths. Make sure to sing them loud.
Cadavers lie alone. Bodies live together. Superchunk’s joyous and unrelenting punk, sounding as urgent as it ever has, draws its strengths from its community. “You gotta get out, out and about/ Meet your weird neighbors once in awhile,” Mac reminds us, and What a Time to Be Alive, already an LP-length tribute to being in a band, spots collaborators and guests that only grow the sound’s scene. There’s Sabrina Ellis in the edges of “Break the Glass” and Katie Crutchfield and Stephen Merritt standing ground on “Erasure.” Community, “our empathy weaponized,” is how cells heal bodies. Merge means we need everyone to make the sound. Chelsea Manning shows up in the text of “I Got Cut” to remind the makers and the listeners of the merits of making bad people angry. Remember: “I’m working/ But I’m not working for you!”
What a Time to Be Alive, the yawp and the yeah and the yowl, is the perfect thesis and pinched nail. It’s the resolution to remain unhampered by despair while excising and atomizing all the moments we have to despair in. It’s the stuff in bones and the smile shared with someone else. The narrative of What a Time to Be Alive as a line-by-line reaction to the political turmoil of our present moment isn’t strictly wrong, but that view of politics (as a force to overtake art as opposed to the opposite) locks art up more than it lets it transform us. Reading punk via headlines impedes the whole scene and reduces the whole sound. This is the slam and sound of the many flowers growing in our skulls, all our bruised resiliencies. If it rocks, it moves a body. If it bruises, it survives. Superchunk means fighting for now and a whole universe of next.
“Fight me/ I’m not a violent person, but fight me.” Life is fragile and mortality is catching, but time is precious and eyes-down silence is untenable. “Fight me/ I don’t like to get hit, but fight me.” The belief that punk will save the world is stupid, maybe, but the confidence that it never will is tantamount to walking death. Superchunk, breaking unbroken, shout songs for us singing. “Fight me/ There’s a million more just like me.”