Mac McCaughan probably didn't predict that his newfound keyboard fascination would become a punch line for two professional comedians.
In 1997, Superchunk cut a clip for "Watery Hands," the romantic and entreating single from their then-new sixth album, Indoor Living. It's a music video about high-concept music videos, a send-up of silly premises and big budgets. David Cross and Janeane Garofalo play overzealous and overconfident directors, assuring Superchunk that they'll honor the band's request for a simple performance short.
But the final cut, which the band watches in horror as Cross and Garofalo cheer themselves on, features atom bombs and harlequin masks, horror movie montages and surrealistic edits. McCaughan is made to look like both a puppet and a yellow Labrador, while drummer Jon Wurster flies, wizard-like, through a mushroom cloud.
Before the chorus, Cross and Garofalo even face one another across twin Moog synthesizers, pantomiming McCaughan's simple keyboard line in unison. "Hey, this is indie rock," they imply in jest. "No synth solos allowed, buddy."
In 2014, such a credo is laughable. The term "indie rock" has become a catchall for an incalculable number of subsets and styles. Samplers share tour vans with guitars, and laptops split space with amplifiers. Nearly two decades after they were made, the sounds on Indoor Living—reissued last week in expanded form on Merge Records—seem, if not passé, then certainly less adventurous than they must have in 1997, when those keyboards flummoxed.
"Mac goes apeshit on the keyboards throughout," Jon Wurster once wrote of "Marquee," the third track on Indoor Living. "This was a song that we played out a few times in the weeks before we left for Bloomington. Many people were quite vocal in their dislike for it."
Superchunk had eased off the throttle a bit for 1994's Foolish, an askance document of the breakup between McCaughan and Superchunk co-founder and bassist Laura Ballance. Still, they were known primarily as a lean, relentless rock band, backing angled hooks with two guitars that wound into coils and a rhythm section that expertly balanced momentum with melody. They'd made "Slack Motherfucker" and "Cast Iron," "Precision Auto" and "Hyper Enough," anthems to be screamed back at the stage.
Indoor Living, however, was characterized by a notable lack of ragers: Opener "Unbelievable Things" started with a massive distorted guitar, but the chords hung low and slow. And rather than yelling over them, McCaughan seethed through their midst, even in the chorus. "Every Single Instinct" was a bittersweet country trot led by dejected guitars and backed by a weepy organ drone. The synthesizer squiggle wasn't the only surprise during "Watery Hands," either; the song jangled politely, as though the band had traded in youthful worry for mature restraint and gone on tour with R.E.M.
"The easiest influences to incorporate are the easiest to imitate ... the most hyper, straight-ahead, aggro," McCaughan told Flipside in 1998. "Maybe you wanna explore some different things and you have to slow down in order to do it."
But the substantial storyline of Indoor Living should never have been the casually shoehorned keyboards, the occasional glockenspiel or the generally midtempo proceedings. If bands make enough music, they usually start to add new instruments and accents, whether out of boredom or sheer intrigue. For all of Indoor Living's accessories, one of Superchunk's most direct and aggressive numbers, "Nu Bruises," pokes like a middle finger from the record's center. It's the exception, sure, but it proves that they hadn't simply outgrown themselves.
Instead, Indoor Living is perhaps Superchunk's ultimate early achievement in the balancing act between being a powerful rock band and writing poignant songs. By the time of Indoor Living's release, McCaughan had already put out three albums under his solo singer-songwriter guise, Portastatic. But these 11 tracks represent some of his best writing during the '90s, as he grapples with the approach of adulthood at its very threshold. The post-teenage tantrums of early Superchunk had softened, and the bitterness of the relationship woes from Foolish had faded into an autumnal sort of wistfulness. The band members were becoming adults: McCaughan turned 30 two months after those Bloomington sessions, Ballance not long thereafter.
The specter of age haunts Indoor Living: "Martinis on the Roof" is a bittersweet memorial for Gibson Smith, a friend and Chapel Hill lawyer who died in a traffic accident. A season crashes to an end with the opening line of "Burn Last Sunday," and McCaughan treats the tedium of musicianship—doing interviews, making engagements, selling artifacts—with empathetic exasperation during "Song for Marion Brown." The barreling, vintage version of Superchunk emerges on "The Popular Music," bouncing behind a simple riff with an almost hardcore alacrity. But they pull up as capably as they plow ahead, pausing between almost every verse to linger in a reverie of distended harmonies and acoustic guitars. "It was like we'd never get old," McCaughan screams at the start, deftly using the past perfect tense to spotlight Superchunk's toggle toward maturity.
Those feelings all funnel into "Under Our Feet," a late-album gem that's been so overlooked the band has barely played it in the 17 years since its release. It's a snapshot of atrophy, where comforting structures crumble in plain sight. "You were a song in the dark/a swan in the sleet," McCaughan sings. "And it rotted out from under our feet." The harmonies tuck in behind him, wonderfully high and beautiful. One of the record's most subtle and surprising moments becomes its most stirring—the sure sign of a band who'd gotten good enough at being loud to be quiet, too.
As so-called deluxe reissues go, this update is especially slim, featuring only the remastered album on either CD or LP and a paper square that offers directions to download the bonus material. That addendum, the latest in Superchunk's occasional live Clambakes series, consists only of a 19-track recording of the band playing Duke University three weeks after Indoor Living's release.
It's a fine gig: Guitarist Jim Wilbur is in caustic, bantering form and Ballance's bass lines snap against the speakers like a whip. A cover of Big Dipper's "Younger Bums" works as an opening homage to the stunning Blue Devils recruiting class that included William Avery, Shane Battier and Elton Brand. The charging-then-arching guitars of "Driveway to Driveway" perfectly swallow McCaughan's yawp.
Paired with Indoor Living, the set epitomizes the tension between Superchunk's past and what was becoming a moodier present. Live, they burned away the need to experiment, reverting into a rock band. They didn't bother to nail the falsetto of "Marquee" or add its keyboards. Instead, they redoubled the guitars during the noise-rock coda. Superchunk was very much still sorting through its own stylistic expansion.
"That's a song everyone hates," McCaughan offers at the end. "Except for us."
After two more albums, Superchunk took a recording break that lasted for nearly a decade. They've since returned with two acclaimed albums that wear sad stories and weary feelings like badges of honor and aren't afraid to tinker with legacy. If that sounds like a familiar idea, it's because it sounds a lot like Indoor Living.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Off the mouth."