Superchunk: Wild Loneliness | ★★ ★★ |  Merge Records; Friday, Feb. 25

I keep hopping in my car to listen to Wild Loneliness.

It’s an odd reaction to what is an unusually restrained record for Superchunk. The Chapel Hill indie-rock luminaries open and close with lush and thoughtful ballads. Each song is girded by acoustic rhythm guitar, skewing closer to the pop end of the pop-punk spectrum.

More nervy, cutting, and quintessentially Superchunk records like 1991’s endlessly propulsive On the Mouth or 2018’s righteously pissed-off What a Time to Be Alive are more obvious pairings for rolled-down windows and open roads.

But like that last, most recent Superchunk album, which responded with brutally entertaining venom to “the scum, the shame, the fucking lies” of Donald Trump’s presidency, Wild Loneliness is supremely suited for its moment.

The new outing seeks both connection and release as it takes stock of a world that feels increasingly isolating and despondent. The band responds with songs that find hope in reaching out, carried by arrangements that are airy and reassuring but still plenty impellent.

They make me want to get out and drive. To go do things again.

Recording separately during the pandemic, Superchunk smartly used that as an opportunity to bring in remote talent to contribute. The additions are beautiful but off-kilter, enhancing the album’s pursuit of balance in an unbalanced time.

Enchanting saxophone shimmers from Wye Oak’s Andy Stack layer at attractively odd angles atop the steady jangle of the title track. It’s a nice fit for a song, written mid-pandemic, that reflects upon the unease of seclusion—“Take a lap, take a hike,” Mac McCaughan sings, “Shake the spiders loose / Any way you like.”

Kelly Pratt (David Byrne, Beirut) adds giddy horns to the acoustic-rock tumble of “Highly Suspect.” It’s a fine mirror for McCaughan’s narrator, who hides his feelings and becomes disconnected—“You’ve been highly suspect / Of my cheerful affect / And you, you were right / It’s a construct.”

Owen Pallett’s gauzy strings bring an appropriately scrappy nobility to “City of the Dead,” where, despite Halloween floods and wild winds whipping, Mac McCaughan declares, “But I’ll still make the coffee / And we still make the beds / And the kids are scarred but smarter.”

The variety of additional vocalists—Sharon Van Etten, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell—don’t make as distinct an impact, but do provide cathartic camaraderie.

Some of the best songs are elevated by Superchunk’s excellent chemistry, despite the distanced recording. Jon Wurster and Laura Ballance’s lithe and commanding rhythms bring certainty to offset McCaughan’s clever self-deprecating on climate change alarm bell “Endless Summer”—“I’m a broken record / I’m a year-round bummer / But I’m not ready / For an endless summer.”

On the closing “If You’re Not Dark,” Jim Wilbur weaves guitar lines that balance arena-sized melancholy and wiry anxiety, as McCaughan rises patiently from fragility to certainty, building to a chorus ready-made for 2022, and life in general—“If you’re not dark / At least in some little part / What are you on? / And can we get some?”

Superchunk has never been better—or better for its time.

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