For an album nine years in the making, Majesty Shredding sounds awfully effortless. I guess it's not really surprising, considering Superchunk has been churning out solid records for 20-plus years. So while the fact that the follow-up to 2001's Here's to Shutting Up is finally here might be shocking for long-time fans, that Majesty Shredding is one of the finest rock records of 2010 should surprise no one.
The record's success is built on the same vision as the best records in the band's discography -- 1994's Foolish and 1995's Here's Where the Strings Come In, if you ask me -- in that it captures Superchunk's aesthetic without retreading well-worn ground. In fact, this record has little in common with the subtle textures of Here's to Shutting Up. In the nine years since then, Superchunk has gone back to its crunchy guitar roots. Sort of.
Opener "Digging for Something" has everything you'd expect from Superchunk. Mac McCaughan's stringy guitar riffs, his raspy bleat, and Jon Wurster's propulsive, intricate drumming. And while Mac sings about how "they were digging for something," you hear a band who found that something long ago and has been tinkering with it ever since.
The album speeds along on a series of those energetic rockers. From the perplexingly titled "My Gap Feels Weird" to the shredding guitars on "Rope Light," Majesty Shredding starts to take on the feel of some sort of alternate history for the band. Where they took the lush sound of 1999's Come Pick Me Up and softened it further with Here's to Shutting Up, this record is the sound of the road they didn't take when they came to the fork a decade ago. This is the beefier side of the mature tunefulness they've grown into over their career, proving that maturing doesn't mean you have to dull the edge.
The strength of the record might be most evident on the mid-tempo numbers. After all, airtight rock songs like "Crossed Wires" and "Learned to Surf" -- originally released via single and EP last year -- are exactly the kind of pogo-inducing fits that Superchunk have become the benchmark for. So it's when they keep the tension up on the ever-building power-pop of "Rosemarie," or how lean guitars build the tension without snapping on album highlight "Winter Games," that you see just how much control Superchunk has over its sound. The musicians may slow down, but it's not to come up for air the way a lesser band might.
"Fractures in Plaster" and "Hot Tubes" come the closest to losing the thread, threatening to slow down to a trudge. But both songs grow as they move and, particularly with "Fractures in Plaster," tune into something solid, even if it takes them a minute to get there. But when the worst thing you can say is that a record isn't perfect at every moment, you've got a great album on your hands. In fact, with all their tight playing as a band, you could almost overlook the fact that McCaughan is also a damned fine songwriter. But when he knocks out precise lines like "Now it never snows no more, only freezing, dirty rain/ Oh no it never snows, but it gets that smell like it might just the same," he mixes the right details with a revealing inflection that drops us into the moody world of the song the way he has for two decades.
Snow, and other dreary weather, comes up often in Shredding Majesty, actually. But if that's some sort of nod to looking back, some hint at mortality, McCaughan and company know better than to wallow in middle age. If anything, this record is a full-blooded reminder to the upstart rock bands rising out of every shitty apartment in every city in the world: Superchunk is still here, and it still does it better than you.
Nine years is a pretty long time for an active band to go without releasing new material, but it sometimes seems tht the more cred an act has, the less compelled its members feel to actually be an "act." Superchunk, for instance, is an group so venerable that two of its members, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, formed essential indie label Merge Records just to put out their own music. With a legacy that storied, how much does it matter that Majesty Shredding is a record almost a decade in the making?
St. Vincent and Mountain Goats producer Scott Solter was on hand for Superchunk's ninth studio album, as was John Darnielle, who contributes backing vocals.