It seems that Superchunk have used recording during a pandemic as an opportunity to throw us a curveball. Ever since the band’s 1990 self-titled debut, Superchunk have spent their career delivering an intelligent and evocative blend of punk, grunge, and indie. Sometimes they’ll lean more heavily on one part of that formula than another, allowing them to diversify their output, but the fundamentals of Superchunk’s oeuvre have, for the past 30 years, been firmly tethered to a classically ‘90s alt-rock sound and style. That is, until Wild Loneliness.
At this point, it’s almost patronizing to talk about how unfathomably large the impact of coronavirus has been on most every person on planet Earth, but the band’s twelfth album—recorded under lockdown—is in some ways a testament to that paradigm shift. Where previous Superchunk releases would alternately find comfortable bedfellows among the discographies of Green Day or Pearl Jam, Wild Loneliness is far more at home with the likes of The Kinks or The Beatles; it’s a soft, earnest baroque-pop record, and if it’s surprising that they’ve gone for such a radical genre shake-up at this point in their career, what’s more surprising still is that they’ve knocked it out of the park.
They’ve got pianos, they’ve got violins, they’ve got brass sections—and they know how to use them. There are some points on the record (though they are few and far between) where the band’s new direction feels rather cosmetic, instead of a sincere attempt to experiment with the new songwriting rules and structures that can be found when embracing a new genre. It’s sometimes as though, after swapping their electric guitars for acoustics and playing the lead melody on a trumpet, they weren’t really sure how to make progress from there. In cases like these, the songs can feel a little meandering, like on “Highly Suspect.”
The remaining 90 percent of the record is magical. It’s hard to understate how triumphantly the band have crafted this series of songs considering—in all the ways the band’s records have evolved (and those of frontman Mac McCaughan’s various projects)—they’ve never quite delved into this sort of dreamy, floaty, sunset-indie-pop. The whole album is imbued with the graceful glow of a warm summer evening; it’s hopeful, it’s soothing, and it’s meticulously crafted. In the whole 38 minutes, there’s barely an idle strum or nonchalant violin fill that isn’t exactly where it needs to be to keep Wild Loneliness immersed in a persistent swell of both warm nostalgia and cautious apprehension.
McCaughan’s vocals very much suit this poppier direction. It’s a confident fit, a charismatic whine that sounds somehow both youthful and wise. There’s even a hint of John Lennon about his delivery in “Refraction,” the rockiest song on the record. But this is far more than a simple rehash of old motifs from the ‘60s—in several songs, a dirty, distorted hum lies beneath the twinkly, sunny riffs, reminding us that Superchunk’s thrashy DIY ethics are never far away. Nor is the band’s fondness for a sardonic comment or two: “Take me to the lightning storm and leave me out to fry,” McCaughin sings in “On the Floor.”
Superchunk’s lyrics take on a whole new shape thanks to Wild Loneliness’ novel instrumentation. In prior iterations of the band’s music, McCaughan’s words would be half-submerged beneath the fuzzy roar of the overdriven guitars, and any angst or cynicism would feel right at home amongst the dirty, grungy production. But with the band playing in a more muted, stripped back fashion, the lyrics are front and center. McCaughan is too clever to slide into the common trope of positive music with negative lyrics; although there is an awful lot of darkness throughout the album, it’s offset by a sensitive, insightful, somehow almost omnipotent form of optimism that plays along with the melancholia perfectly. “Remake the world when the old one dies,” are our instructions in “City of the Dead.” “Unleash the storm and the season to bring back the butterflies.”