The urgency of current events after the demoralizing 2016 election gave Mac, Laura, Jim, and Jon of Superchunk the momentum to make something new sooner than later. “It would be strange to be in a band, at least our band, and make a record that completely ignored the surrounding circumstances that we live in and that our kids are going to grow up in.” Enter What a Time to Be Alive, Superchunk’s first album in over four years. It’s a record, says Mac, “about a pretty dire and depressing situation but hopefully not a record that is dire and depressing to listen to.”
Indeed, like so much of Superchunk’s music in the band’s nearly three decades together, the songs on What a Time to Be Alive meet rage and anxiety head-on with the catharsis and exhilaration of loud punk fire and vulnerable pop energy. Like 2013’s I Hate Music, which focused on death, loss, and the role of music in an aging life, What a Time to Be Alive brings spirit to the frontlines of pain—it’s as defiant as it is despairing, as much a call to arms as a throwing up of hands.
Written almost entirely between November 2016 and February 2017, What a Time to Be Alive was recorded and mixed by Beau Sorenson, who also worked on I Hate Music. The record also has more guest backing vocalists than any previous Superchunk album, including Sabrina Ellis (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit), Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Stephin Merritt (The Magnetic Fields), Skylar Gudasz, and David Bazan.
Chris Lopez composed and recorded the majority of Sweet Bird’s basic tracks on keyboards and guitar at Rob Gal’s studio, and then lugged the tape machine back to the band's Black Box rehearsal space at the end of Krog Street in Cabbagetown, GA to finish. During the next few months, things got peculiar (at least by Rock*A*Teens standards, that is). Band members Will, Justin, and Lopez would each go in on his own time and add his own flourishes to each track without the others’ knowledge. This unusual hands-off collaboration progressed for months during the spring of 2000. The ladies from Ultrababyfat (Shonali and Michelle) laid down Phil Spector-esque backup vocals on “If I Wanted to Be Famous (I’d Have Shot Someone),” and Shannon Wright sang an achingly spare duet with Chris on “It’s Destiny.” Anthemic. Majestic. Shimmering. Heart-aching brilliance. The Rock*A*Teens focused it all into Sweet Bird of Youth.
When Sweet Bird was released, the band was approaching the end of its existence. A few tours went by. 2001 turned into 2002, and the band was barely doing anything at all. Understandably. The band members all had their own lives, their own jobs, and their own destinies. The band’s final concert on New Year’s Eve ’02 wasn’t sheepish but rather a triumphant farewell. Lopez sang without his guitar on, standing on the monitors and screaming “I am the car, and I am the driver!” The crowd was as jubilant as the band.
Much like their performances back then, their body of work is a true catharsis. They were a truly homegrown band from Georgia that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for being from anywhere else. For anybody that ever wants a glimpse into what Cabbagetown was all about back then, the Rock*A*Teens' Sweet Bird of Youth is a glorious introductory step.