This Is 40: "The World's End," Superchunk, And Embracing The Old Familiar
What do a sci-fi comedy about an English town overrun with robots and a new album from American indie-rock heroes have in common? Only the most important question a self-absorbed generation can face: How do we grow up?
The World's End, Edgar Wright's third how-to-grow-up rumination wrapped inside a genre lark, is a hoot from beginning to end. But the undeniable lapel-grabbing moment comes when Nick Frost's Andy — a reformed partier turned repressed corporate lawyer in the midst of a disastrous pub crawl through the sleepy, stultifying English village he grew up in — yells, "I hate this fucking town," picks up two barstools, and proceeds to wildly thrash a bar full of dead-eyed suburbanites who, if we're being thorough, are actually robots filled with blue goo. But never mind the petty details: The outburst is glorious and thrilling and punk as fuck.
The source of this guy's frustration isn't even the automatons who experience the brunt of his considerable wrath, but the estranged wreck of a human being who dragged him back to this place — geographically and psychologically — to begin with. Simon Pegg's Gary is hopelessly stuck in 1990, right down to the black trench coat and Sisters of Mercy shirt. He's determined to revisit the glory-ish days, and one day in particular: an aborted post-graduation 12-bar pub crawl. For the most part he's rendered as pathetic — a grifter and an addict and socially incompetent — but at least he knows who he is and what he wants, even if those things haven't changed in 23 years. His friends have evolved and done things like move away and start successful careers and raise children, but certainly don't appear any happier, nor do the glazed-over denizens of their hometown, who come to be known unaffectionately as "blanks."
This rather dim view of settling down is a running theme in the three films co-written by Wright and Pegg and co-starring Frost that have come to be known as the Cornetto Trilogy — in 2004's Shaun of the Dead, London was halfway into a zombie uprising before Pegg's titular reluctant hero even noticed, and in 2007's Hot Fuzz, the genteel elders of a quaint English village turn out to be murderous paranoiacs. Our heroes do ultimately mature, but with fingers crossed behind their backs: Shaun accepts domesticity and wins his girlfriend back, but still has his slacker buddy chained up in the shed for when he wants to play video games; Gary sobers up, but roams the wasteland to order pints of water with the teenage versions of his best mates.
The options for adulthood appear to be fuckup or robot, a term that we are repeatedly reminded is actually a term for slave. (No one's aiming for subtlety here — one of the charmless pubs on the crawl is called the Old Familiar.) The concern is not merely how to make one's forties look like one's twenties, but whether that notion is appropriate to consider. Navigating between those two poles is scarcely an option, even though the movie's creators are poster man-children for how to do this expertly.
On the whole, it's hard to think of anyone who's done a better job of parlaying adolescent enthusiasms into adult careerism than Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. The former, who wrote a memoir called Nerd Do Well, is already a regular in one of the two rebooted geek-grail franchises (Star Trek), and if JJ Abrams knows what's good for him, he'll put him in the other (Star Wars). Wright's last non-Cornetto movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was based on a comic book, as will, apparently, his next (Marvel's Ant-Man).
"We draw very sharp lines in the movie, like, Do you want to be one of them, one of the slaves?" Wright says. "Or do you want to be like Gary King, the rebel? And in truth, Simon and I live very happily in the middle."
This general subject is hardly new terrain — the House of Apatow has carved a lucrative enterprise out of tracking the nuances of a generation's tentative stumble from dudehood into manhood, and Kevin Smith thinks he's been doing this for years — but it's Wright, Pegg, and Frost who have quietly nailed the tone, without ever delivering less than pitch-perfect popcorn fare. They take familiar cinematic horror/action/sci-fi tropes to their logical — and sociological — extremes in the name of exploring why settling down makes people seem brain-dead. And somehow, these baldly fantastical movies feel truer to the reality of deciding which toys and foibles you can keep, or at least truer to the burning question: How do you grow up and find your place in the world without abandoning the things that make you you?
With apologies to world hunger, the Middle East, and the general slow collapse of society, what could possibly be more important than figuring that out?
The sonic equivalent of Frost's "I hate this fucking town!" is the fourth song on Superchunk's 10th album, I Hate Music, the very existence of which is a monument, and riposte, to that. Barely a minute long, "Staying Home" is a brutal, breakneck hardcore blast, ostensibly the fastest the band has ever recorded, and it's actually about staying home and it's poignant and hilarious without ever being a joke.
It's mere coincidence that this album is being released the same week as The World's End, but they share that same burning question and the same pedigree of creators who have answered it for themselves about as well as anyone could.
"I think a lot of it is just how you frame it or what angle you take," says frontman Mac McCaughan from the Durham, North Carolina, office of Merge Records, the label he and Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance have co-owned since 1989, current home to Arcade Fire and Spoon, and credited with nothing less than revitalizing the entire community. "No one wants to hear complaining about being in a band from anyone in a band. And, 'Check out our new album, you're gonna love it, it's about being 45' is a terrible pitch. I think [the topic of aging] has shown up more recently just because we've figured out ways to approach it that are maybe funny or at least oblique enough."
Superchunk have been a very great and influential band for going on 25 years; it's only now becoming inarguable that they're an Important one. The closest thing to a hit on their CV is probably 1990's "Slack Motherfucker" — even a quasi-goth like Gary would have likely read about it in the NME and misinterpreted the lyrics enough to adopt it as a pro-loafing anthem — but for at least the first part of their 24-year run, they were indie-rock Zeligs, always in the frame with, but just to the side of, contemporaries who blew up and/or burned out. Part of their vanguard status owes to the attrition of their competition, sure, but that is a disservice to their actual achievements — they've released a 10th album that is every bit as good and vital as the nine that preceded it, and that's simply very hard to do, whether you've got kids to drive to school or not. It's punk by and for people who used to identify as punk and have learned, eventually, to accept that this transition is a continuum and not a switch that gets flipped.
They were not without their intrasquad melodrama — McCaughan and Ballance dated for a couple years, which is as close as indie rock gets to Rumours. But given the scope of the subculture's highly visible crash and burn, the band committed the sin of consistency and reliability, which makes for fine careers and relatively robust mental health, if not necessarily scintillating copy; we didn't miss them because they didn't go away, until, after 2001's Here's to Shutting Up, they did. For most of the next decade, the four members started families, nurtured a successful label, pursued other interests musical and not, and generally did things becoming of adults who'd spent most of their lives packed into vans doing decidedly un-adult things. They were working; they just weren't working for us.
Which is why 2010's Majesty Shredding felt like something of an experiment to see how, or if, the band could continue to exist in a serious way now that it wasn't the center of its members' lives; punk was never about compartmentalization. And I Hate Music, which is dedicated to (and occasionally about) a close friend who died last year, is the eventual outcome of that experiment, the sound of a band completely comfortable in its own skin.
"The key for us is trying to grab and hold onto the things that have always been good about being in a band," McCaughan says. "When we're recording now, it's not terribly different from 20 years ago."
They are hardly the first '90s-vintage band to catch a second wind, but they do it without R-word baggage or expectations — you can't reunite what never broke up — or overt reliance on nostalgia. Their everyband Zeligness is now a feature, not a bug; they can tour how and when they'd like and not have to play On the Mouth from beginning to end to help sell a 20th anniversary reissue or recalibrate for changes in fashion. They're writing songs like "Void," which can stand alongside any they've ever done. Yet there are still creaky knees — Ballance has retired from touring due to what she fears may be hyperacusis. They've evolved without overreaching or parodying themselves, hanging on the fringes of an industry until the fringes became where the action was, and if that was an easy needle to thread, you'd be able to name five other bands who've done the same.
And just as trying to hit a dozen bars in one night is best left to the young and unencumbered, so is driving around the country to play three-minute rock songs in sweaty clubs. But the alternative — not doing that at all, even if it's the exact thing that consumed the formative years of your life — sends its own message to those who are scrutinizing you the most closely, looking for an example to follow.
"On one hand, you don't want to be away from your kids, but on the other, you want to show them what it is you do," McCaughan says before leaving for band practice. "And what can be done."