Quarantining The Past: Superchunk’s ‘Foolish’

    Though the myth that Foolish is chiefly about the  break-up between singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance has been largely debunked at this point (by the band members themselves, mostly), that fact still seems to hang over discussion of the band’s landmark 1994 album.

    The reason why has less to do with our love of break-up records, and we do love them, and more to do with finding an easy answer to account for the indefinable new quality that changed the band’s sound on this record. There’s darkness to this music that is both troubling and envigorating. Sure, there’s no shortage of moments of tension and bile in the earlier Superchunk records, but it sounded different. If “Slack Motherfucker” was bitter, if “Precision Auto” was aggressive and frustrated, both were still oddly celebratory. The comfort in unleashing your own hell, in the “feeling noise becomes” that McCaughan notes on 2010’s Majesty Shredding, was more of a joyful shout than a dark snarl.

    But Foolish toed the line between these two things, between shedding frustration and getting tangled up in it. Right from the moody opening notes of “Like a Fool,” a song that throws us into a nonsensical dream, where signs make no sense but we read them anyway, Foolish is a record of confusion, one searching for answers in places where there aren’t necessarily any to be found. “The First Part” may mention a relationship’s honeymoon period in the title, but its focus is on the moment that turns sour, a moment that seems inevitable in McCaughan’s cold, gruff voice. People drink too much here. Sometimes it makes them chase someone who may not be there (“Driveway to Driveway”), other times it gets you to down a strong, burn-your-throat drink you’ve never heard of before (“Kicked In”). People hurt each other in subtle ways here, by forgetting a mounting debt or tossing off an apology “without blinking.”

    Behind all this tension, self-destruction, confrontation and regret, the band stretches their usually speedy hooks out into something darker. The guitar lines on “The First Part” resemble gloomy brit-pop, while “Driveway to Driveway” and “Kicked In” chug uphill on low-end, super-distorted chords. Ballance’s bass rises upand rumbles through the mix, while Jon Wurster’s drumming — ever propulsive — is often spare and spacious here. By the time they get to closer “In a Stage Whisper” they all sound exhausted, run down by this overcast but vital shift in their sound.

    With all this in mind, it’s no wonder everyone drew lines to a break-up (that “Driveway to Driveway” video didn’t help), even if McCaughan’s writing is never on the nose enough to support those claims. Still, it was a dark turn for the band, though it managed to maintained their unmatchable energy. But this reading of Foolish as a post-break-up collection, as a document of disconnection, seems to miss what the record really is.

    In 1994, Merge Records — the label run by McCaughan and Ballance — celebrated its five-year anniversary. It had grown from selling 7-inches from local bands to a full-fledged label, releasing full length records from the likes of Polvo and the Magnetic Fields. Foolish marked the first full-length album (excluding the Tossing Seeds singles collection) Superchunk would release on their own label. Having fulfilled their contract with Matador the year before with On the Mouth, the band celebrated their independence with the release of Foolish. That celebration didn’t go unnoticed, either, with the new record garnering plenty of praise, selling solidly, and landing the band their first TV appearance.

    1994 also marked the release of Mac McCaughan’s first full-length for his side project, Portastatic. Then a collection of mostly home-recorded material, Portastatic offered McCaughan a chance to work with gentler tones that didn’t fit in Superchunk. But you can’t help but see his work there bleed through into Foolish. His growth as a songwriter and arranger is evident, and this album marks the start of a fascinating and varied run of records from the charging intricacy of 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In to the lush shine of 1997’s Indoor Living to the subtler beauty of 1999’s Come Pick Me Up.

    Foolish was where Superchunk proved it was capable of quite a bit more than we may have originally given the band credit for. Those speedy early records were brilliant, but Superchunk had more than that one trick up their sleeve. And, hey, this wasn’t just “Look, we can brood too.” Check out those first four songs — “Like a Fool,” “The First Part,” “Water Wings,” and “Driveway to Driveway.” Classic Superchunk songs, every one of them. And later we get “Kicked In” and “Why Do You Have to Put a Date on Everything?” and “‘Keeping Track.” If Foolish was notable for its shift in tone, what makes it a classic record is the strength of the individual songs. They still play these live for a reason — they fucking kill.

    And yes, McCaughan and Ballance weren’t a couple anymore, but the band didn’t fall apart, and neither did the label. It’s also curious to note that, around this time, Ballance started singing backing vocals at the band’s shows. It seems that, as their relationship fell apart, everything else came together. That they didn’t let the label crumble has turned into something crucial to rock and pop music today, since Merge has released some of the most exciting and important records around in the 17 years since Foolish came out. For all the shadows around this record — both sonic and personal — there is little about this album that suggests an end, or a breaking down, or a disconnect. No, Foolish marks a convergence of people who were great musicians and, perhaps more important, great fans of music. It’s a signpost for a crucial new beginning: for the band, for the label, and for independent music as we know it.

    So enough  about the break-up already.

    A newly remastered reissue of Foolish is available on vinyl and CD from Merge Records now.