When Superchunk left Matador Records following the release of their 1993 album On the Mouth, the Chapel Hill band had grown considerably in popularity, and many like-minded bands were signing with major labels. In a post-Nirvana talent hunt that was clearly beyond overkill in hindsight, everyone from Helmet to Poster Children, Jesus Lizard to Jawbox and just about every other guitar-slinging indie rock act landed a big time contract. But Superchunk, ignoring the trend at the time, chose to go back to their homebase, Merge Records, started by the band’s Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance back at the beginning of their career. And rather than hoard big label cash to crank out a more commercial production, the band recorded Foolish, a darker and moodier album that tempered Superchunk’s reputation for upbeat punk-pop numbers with sinister melodies and cathartic angst.
Recorded following the breakup of McCaughan and Ballance, there’s more than a twinge of bitterness and melancholy that hangs over Foolish (reflected in its disturbing and kinda ugly dead-rabbit album art). But, serving to uphold the cliché that great art is born of great pain, Foolish also stands as one of the band’s most impressive recordings. There’s a greater sense of sophistication to these songs, and the band sounds much more comfortable with the idea of taking their time and fleshing out more intricate arrangements, even if there were some personal tensions at play. It’s apparent from the first song, “Like a Fool,” which progresses slowly and carefully, as McCaughan and Jim Wilbur trade minor key guitar chimes rather than plow through a series of crunchy power chords.
Hearing Foolish 17 years after the fact via a new reissue on Merge, and after a series of other dark, low-key records like Indoor Living, the change doesn’t seem so radical. But at the time, the band had essentially leapt from being a hard-charging indie rock combo to one that had become more somber and introspective. And that was sort of a big deal. Their previous two albums had only occasionally hinted at a twangy, emotional pop song like “Driveway to Driveway,” in which McCaughan laments “I thought that it was you I had chased/ driveway to driveway, drunk.” And even when the band does rock out a bit more, via “Saving My Ticket,” they do so with restraint and elegance, inevitably inviting the all-too-familiar refrain that it was a more “mature” album. And despite that, it can be, at times, an emotional bloodletting. No line is as telling as Mac’s icepick on “Without Blinking”: “you said ‘I’m sorry’ and you were not blinking/ you can not know how much that hurts.”
There’s a great deal of pain in Foolish, but unlike some of the band’s earlier, more light-hearted songs, that pain translates into some admirably bare expressions of emotion. The band has since avoided airing any dirty laundry, but that likely has largely to do with the fact that, from this point on, they remained a productive, well-oiled unit that kept up a prolific output in the ’90s and ended up expanding Merge into one of the biggest indie labels in the United States. They have a Grammy winner on their roster, and that’s a pretty big bragging point. But for as vulnerable and downcast as Superchunk sounded in 1994, Foolish ended up one of their best.