Contemporary indie rock aims to prove that one pass through the ’90s was not enough. Every festival lineup, deluxe reissue, and reunion tour nowadays reflects a (newly) reconfigured collective memory of those Clintonian pleasure daze, when we were all cool, pure, and employed. Alanis Morissette was a feminist icon; grunge was all Nirvana and no Candlebox. To ’90s bands themselves, from Pavement on down, this cultural cash-out makes sense—when you’re pushing 40 (or 50), nostalgia is a constant companion. All you have to do is plug in and sate an audience subsisting on YouTubed footage of your yore.
The funny thing about the ’90s is that reunions weren’t a thing that punk or indie bands did—that was the province of state-fair bands, the Four Tops, and so forth. When punk bands did it, inevitably it was some geezer-y, second-string first-wave band ill-reputing whatever rep has survived them. There was shame in it, because it made you look like Sha Na Na at Woodstock: Even the fucking hippies had enough momentum and self-respect to boo the previous generation’s tune.
Amid this throwbacking is Superchunk, indie stars and proximate peers of this reunion wave who never broke up—meaning they have yet to disappoint their fan base with some graceless Antiques Roadshow revivification. Instead, this week, the band that helped foment “college rock” as we now know it, 20 years on and now comprised of 40-year-olds, will release a new album, but don’t call it a comeback. After a hyperactive first decade, they simply slowed up in their teens: Majesty Shredding is the band’s first new studio album in nine years, vigorous and kicking, much more so than you’d have right or reason to expect out of a band this deep into their career. A band still sparking with ideas. Two decades in, it’s still duty now for the future.
It’s clear that frontman Mac MacCaughan is doing battle with this ungainly nostalgia bit, aiming to not so much prove that they’ve still got it (at least not to us—even at their most tepid, Superchunk’s albums are better than most), but to show that you can be an old(er) band and still maintain your dignity. It’s made with the awareness that when you’re too tied up in the past, it stalls and warps you. It reflects unease with the fantasy of the past, the romance of what-was: Album closer “Everything at Once” is a coda, a challenge to those holding on to 16 as long as they can: “You can hear the big black clock/And no, it doesn’t slow or stop/It just ticks as you tick off what might have been/So here’s a song about nothing and everything at once/Oh, the minutes and the months/Nothing and everything at once.”
Majesty Shredding is a record about time, about things melting and rotting and fading and breaking, returning and being remembered; “Rope Light” is about the lure of lingering on your memories, of over-eulogizing the “stage fright and beautiful debris” that was. You get a sense of age—there’s something softly cynical and wise behind these big riffs of theirs. Young bands, save for nihilist teen punks, are rarely this unsentimental. In that way, perhaps this is Superchunk’s punk album: Though their guitars were always too purposed, pedaled, and magnificent to be taken for punk (and still are), they’re too spirited and resolute not to sound punk anyway.
Recorded quickly, Shredding is purposeful but party-band loose—Mac still sounds like a squawky adolescent, though he hasn’t actually been one since the early ’80s. It’s Superchunk drawing a line in the sand, refusing to stop being a band even though they know rock ‘n’ roll is the province of the young, refusing to burn out, refusing to broadcast from the past, refusing this mantle of the golden ’90s, resisting that stalled comfort and stagnant understanding—actively refusing to abide the hauntological survey that is indie rock in 2010. In doing so, they honor their fans and our memories by allowing us to forget, and to be new again.
Superchunk play Bowery Ballroom September 18 and Music Hall of Williamsburg September 19