Thanks to a string of great albums—1991’s No Pocky For Kitty, 1993’s On The Mouth, 1994’s Foolish, and 1995’s Here’s Where The Strings Come In—Superchunk could do no wrong in the lead-up to its sixth full-length. The band had enjoyed a creatively fertile, not to mention prolific run: By the time Superchunk released Indoor Living in 1997, it had six full-lengths, two singles/B-sides collections, and upward of 20 7-inches and EPs. Across all of it, Superchunk honed its signature sound: highly melodic, punk-inflected rock with big guitars and brisk tempos. It had more texture and nuance than that may imply, but the band’s most beloved songs were usually the ones where it went for broke.
And that’s what Superchunk had been doing for years by the time the touring cycle for Here’s Where The Strings Come In finished. Exhausted, it took the unprecedented step of tapping the brakes. That led to a two-year interval between albums, and the beginning of the transition out of the group’s heyday. That’s especially apparent on the new Indoor Living reissue, which crisply remasters the original tracks, and includes the audio from a 1997 live show (featuring deep cuts like “Shallow End” and “Cast Iron”) and liner notes from bassist Laura Ballance and producer John Plymale.
When Superchunk reconvened for Indoor Living, it decided to record at Echo Park in Bloomington, Indiana, a studio belonging to longtime John Mellencamp guitarist Mike Wanchic. Part of its attraction came from the gear it offered, which included “a whole bunch of synthesizers,” as Plymale recalls in Our Noise: The Story Of Merge Records. “I definitely remember [Superchunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan] wanting to experiment a lot with the synthesizers, playing around and trying to come up with ideas.”
Those synthesizers would unmistakably distinguish many of Indoor Living’s songs from others in the band’s catalog. In the bridge to the chorus of “Watery Hands,” the keyboard is the focal point; another adds some texture to “Burn Last Sunday”; in “Nu Bruises,” one lurks in the background of the final verse; an organ rounds out the long coda of “European Medicine.” The synthesizers are the clearest indication that the band, particularly McCaughan and drummer Jon Wurster, was getting creatively restless.
The tempos slowed. The songs grew longer: Three of 11 stretched over five minutes—one a second short of six—and six went longer than four minutes. Our Noise called it a “calculated departure from the brash and salty-sweet guitar heroics the band was known for.” Unsurprisingly, fans didn’t embrace all of it. As McCaughan notes after the band plays “Marquee” on the live bonus material, “That’s a song everybody hates except for us.” One of the slowest songs on the album, it features a chorus where McCaughan pushes the upper limits of his register (which is especially wobbly on the live track) into a falsetto that’s a far cry from the cathartic expletives of “Slack Motherfucker.” Not coincidentally, this was a time when Superchunk wasn’t performing that song much, if at all.
Indoor Living was the beginning of tinkering that would grow far more pronounced on the next two Superchunk albums, 1999’s Come Pick Me Up and 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up. With a mix of expansive (“Marquee,” “Every Single Instinct,” “Under Our Feet,” “Watery Hands,”) and classic-sounding songs (“Nu Bruises,” “The Popular Music,” “European Medicine”), Indoor Living was the bridge from Superchunk’s heyday to its slower, more contemplative midlife crisis. Coming on the heels of Superchunk albums that would go down as classics, it couldn’t help but seem shakier than its predecessors. But Indoor Living remains an essential album, a snapshot of one of the best indie bands ever at an interesting time in its life. It would be Superchunk’s last great album for more than a decade. Seventeen years later, maybe it’ll get a little more of the attention that it deserves.