Robert Christgau on the Most Affecting Political Album of Our Era

The Dean of American Rock Critics finds insight and urgency in Superchunk's 'What a Time to Be Alive.'
March 9, 2018, 5:30pm
Photo: Lissa Gotwals

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To find out more about his career, read his welcome post ; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.


Superchunk: What a Time to Be Alive (Merge) Call the most affecting political album of our brutally politicized era the lament of the slack motherfucker. Unlike most alt-rockers, Mac McCaughan thinks railing against Trump is a proper use of his aesthetic essence and finds words for his loathing: "Hate so graceless and so cavalier," "You have a dream / a bloody nightmare / for any human that's not you," "all your bad choices / are gonna cause suffering yeah." And while claiming the good guys have time on their side, he can't help observing that "all these old men / won't die too soon," which is one reason "everyone is acting normal / but no one's sleeping through the night." He's torn apart by the ineffectiveness of his present and the "shit decisions" of his past. He calculates that youthful Reagan voters greatly outnumbered Reagan Youth fans who thought they were so smart. "We were awful bored," he recalls; "too late we find our feet," he realizes. So he devotes his wakeful fifties to bitter lyrics that make themselves clear, anthemic tunes that make them inescapable, and broken vocals that make them hurt. A

Chopteeth Afrofunk Big Band: Bone Reader (Grigri) That this longtime DC horn-funk unit ain't Fela's goes without saying. It's also a given that its politics are saner than Fela's. But Michael Skereikis's felt wisdom comes as a considerable surprise. Where so many similar messages come off unthinking, you never doubt that these preoccupy Skereikis as deeply as his music. When he calls his opener "Questions of Our Day," you wouldn't mind if he ran them back again. When "Tribulation" winds through a long list of war-torn nations, there are so many you half wish he'd stop. And when he makes the case for DC statehood, you remember that in politics, sanity alone guarantees nothing. B PLUS

Grant Peeples and the Peeples Republik: Settling Scores Vol. II (Gatorbone) Steals a world-class hook from Bob Dylan, who had it coming, and nails two protest songs out of four, which is better than Dylan has done in quite a while ("The New Brownsville Girl," "This Could be a Long Night," "More feor Us, Less for Them") ***

Prophets of Rage: Prophets of Rage (Concord Music Group) I'd fret more about how set in its ways their Public Enemy-Rage Against the Machine alliance is if the machinery of American capitalism had loosened up even a little in the decades since they began their railing ("Living on the 110," "Smashit") *

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