On Second Thought
Superchunk - Indoor Living

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Superchunk are just one of those bands, you know? One of those b-list groups that were hot at some point and have now devolved into just another act plugging away and putting out albums. Sure, they have their fans, but most people don’t get excited when Superchunk puts something out. In fact, at this point they’re more famous for founding the rather excellent Merge label than for their music.

So you would think that their last three or four albums, where every review reads “this is a perfectly good album, but not as exciting as their early stuff” would be pretty forgettable. That you should just grab No Pocky For Kitty and maybe On The Mouth or their singles comp and just forget about Superchunk. But you’d be wrong. I can’t vouch for their entire latter-day corpus, but one effort, seemingly overlooked by fans and band both, is one of my favorite albums of all time: Their 1997 commercial nadir Indoor Living.

I randomly picked it up via my local used record store one day when I decided I needed some Superchunk in my life. It was either this or Foolish, and I really didn’t need another breakup album in my collection at that point. What I discovered was something that takes my breath away. And yet everywhere I turn people dismiss it with a shrug. The (incredibly anthemic) single “Watery Hands” was okay, they say. It makes me seriously doubt my own taste, but putting the record on again assuages those fears.

What makes Indoor Living so great is that, while technically Superchunk are expanding their sound (check out the keyboards on “Marquee” or the extremely well placed strings halfway through “European Medicine”) it’s not one of those albums where the band gets so involved in the new toys that the songs suffer; and while lyrically the album is a grab bag, composed of tributes to jazzman Marion Brown (“Song For Marion Brown”, naturally), Morrissey (“Every Single Instinct”) and deceased friend Gibson Smith (the closing “Martinis On The Roof”), a few surreal narratives (“Unbelievable Things”, “Burn Last Sunday”, “Watery Hands”) and a clutch of solid relationship songs (especially “Under Our Feet”) a consistent tone prevails throughout.

That tone, and this was what surprised me during my initial experience with this record, is an uplifting one. For whatever reason, Mac McCaughan is able to make every line from “If we burn last Sunday we can buy ourselves back some time” to “I care about the dumbest things” sound joyous. That last one, especially; it closes out “European Medicine” but the sense you get from listening to Indoor Living isn’t that McCaughan is castigating himself; we all care about the dumbest things. Or, at least, we all should—the dumb things deserve care as much as anything else.

But don’t assume that it’s just a mindless font of positivity; after all, it ends with a heartfelt tribute to a dead friend, both “Song For Marion Brown” and “The Popular Music” are both far too realistic about the business of art to be happy, “European Medicine” starts out as a meditation on drinking and everywhere from “Under Our Feet” (as in “it rotted out from”) to “Nu Bruises” the harsh reality of day-to-day existence intrudes. But the way these songs are put together is as if to remind us that these aren’t what’s really important about life; as McCaughan puts it, “New bruises are no bruises”. These tunes are armoured with the certainty that you can get through life with humour and sanity and heart intact. “Marquee” may be about an unpleasant, arrogant person, but when McCaughan slips in the comment “You love the trading cards of fame” it’s with both humour and fondness.

All of this is especially true of “Watery Hands”, my favorite Superchunk song and one of the best ones ever written about the real life push and pull of love, not some storybook idealization of it. From the opening lines “When you leave this coast / Take me with you / ‘Cause I can’t live with your ghost / She’s too much like you” mixed feelings sluice through the track, summed up best by the chorus:

You’re made of water, I’m made of sand
Don’t grit your teeth
Just let me kiss your watery hands…

Stop washing me away

There’s frustration there, but also affection; fundamental differences resolved through compromise. “Watery Hands” sure as hell speaks more clearly to the day-in and day-out of coexisting with someone else that you love than a hundred soppy ballads. That the chorus is so exhilarating in its delivery is gravy. And “Watery Hands” is just one song; there are at least eight others here I’d love to give the Seconds treatment to. Indoor Living is amazingly consistent, moving from strength to strength with nary a pause. It’s one of those records where just as you’re thinking a highlight is over a new one begins.

Musically, Indoor Living is a shift from Superchunk’s garage-punk origins. Its predecessor Here’s Where The Strings Come In had a few slower numbers, but it was generally still fast and thrashy—the opener was even called “Hyper Enough”. Here most of the songs are slower, mid-tempo, allowing them to build up a tremendous head of steam on the longer numbers like “Unbelievable Things” or “European Medicine”. “Unbelievable Things” in particular ends with an astounding lengthy guitar gnarl, Jim Wilbur and McCaughan stretching their playing to heights previously unheard on Superchunk records. One of the reasons I love Indoor Living so fiercely is that it’s a great example of the power of purely conventional rock music when played right. Sometimes I just want a steady backbeat, insistent bass and loud guitars, and while the no-frills way they’re delivered here may make this album the musical equivalent of meat-and-potatoes, there’s nothing wrong that kind of meal as long as you don’t try to live on it.

Indoor Living isn’t a flashy effort, it isn’t ever going to be regarded as world-shaking, but try putting it on when you’re in a bad mood and see if you don’t feel better about yourself and the world when it’s over. I’ll take that feeling over the yawning emptiness of a thousand other, cooler discs.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-08-24
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