Superchunk: Indoor Living (1997)

April 21, 2012

Roll: 5-5-5
Album: Superchunk, Indoor Living

I’m here to make a case that Indoor Living is Superchunk‘s most underrated album. Typing that, it occurs to me I have no idea if Indoor Living is actually under-appreciated. But my gut feeling is that it most definitely is.

This feeling could be based purely on my rather strong negative opinion of the ludicrously terrible cover art. I believe the artwork may have actually been responsible for me selling my original copy to a used CD store irregardless of the music. I only recently picked the album up again after having recollected “Watery Hands” is one of the group’s best songs.

In fact, for a Superchunk album, the killer-to-filler ratio is unusually high. You can’t deny the group have turned out some of the best singles ever recorded in the golden age of American indie-rock, but  their albums tend to be patchy affairs, more miss than hit. Delightfully, Indoor Living breaks with tradition and burns through a flawless first half before only cooling off  moderately for the final five tunes.  It’s a nice balance between their early pop-punk ravers and the mid-tempo introspection of the borderline adult alternative Here’s To Shutting Up. Despite a slightly muddy mix, it might even be their most rewarding album song-for-song.

The artwork, however, remains inexcusable.

Not only is the painting of a bathroom sink ugly on a purely aesthetic level the typography is thoughtless and ineffective even by 1990’s indie-rock standards. Seeing as ugly and amateurish are two hallmarks of 90’s indie-rock album design, it’s impressive just how purely conceived and executed this cover really is.

Perhaps it ultimately suffers from being neither ugly nor amateurish enough.

Let’s take gander at the cover for Superchunk’s previous album, Here’s Where The Strings Come In (1995). Though it’s as quintessentially 90’s indie as the music contained within, the Strings artwork is little more than a quickly tossed off riff on Vaughan Oliver‘s iconic designs.

Here we have a faux-artistic photograph, featuring some extreme selective focus, of something (Christmas ornaments? Ear rings?) on a lawn. Though it isn’t immediately obvious what this image is meant to convey about the music, it’s further confused by a bar on the side being thrown into negative for absolutely no apparent reason. I can only speculate it’s there because around the mid-90’s Photoshop made it suddenly really easy for anyone to make a crappy, arbitrary snapshot appear more intentional, even artistic. Above the ambiguous blurs, the text for the band name and album title is set in a ham-fisted attempt at creative letter spacing.

Whether the entire effect is the result of a failed attempt at sophisticated  design; or if it was consciously intended to convey an amateurish, DIY slacker mentality; or if it was merely a subconscious emulation of other intentional failures at sophisticated design, it’s impossible to tell for sure.

Where the design is successful is it manages, seemingly by accident, to be eye-catching. In spite of its weaknesses, it looked hip in 1995 and even today looks like a record you’d wouldn’t be embarrassed by if your friends saw it on your shelf. The design is quaintly naive, but it isn’t hideous.

Indoor Living, on the other hand, looks like something you don’t really want to listen to.

With it being one of The Chunks’ most engaging and cohesive albums, this is a shame. One has to wonder if it might have been a bigger hit if it’d been given a better cover, one that somewhat represented the music, or at least pandered to the pop culture tastes of the era.

1997 was all about space-age bachelor pads and swinging retro nostalgia. Superchunk were never in competition with neo-swing bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (thank god) but the very title, Indoor Living,  seems to be tapping into this zeitgeist.

So why wasn’t there an ultra-hip (perhaps ironically ugly) apartment featured on the cover? Something like Unhappy Hipsters, the Mad Men edition.  The cynically sterile modern interior design of 1950’s “dream” apartments seems perfect to illustrate  the themes of disillusionment with the american dream and the unraveling of domestic bliss in the album’s lyrics.

To keep things contemporary with bands Superchunk were somewhat in competition with, borrowing the (Smiths-inspired) duo-tone photograph gimmick from Belle and Sebastian would be appropriate. Reinstating the excellent 50’s inspired band logo from No Pocky For Kitty wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

I threw the above together in about half an hour. Though it’s still not the perfect artwork for the album, I believe it’s a lot closer to the goal. It might be a tad on the generic side, but at the very least it doesn’t look like the most boring children’s book about brushing your teeth ever written.

I also couldn’t help but attempt to improve upon an aspect of the Strings design by throwing in a tinted bar that actually serves a purpose. The green separates the woman from the couple in blue, symbolizing the feelings of detached isolation and that results from modern apartment living.

And isn’t feeling out of place when everything is in its right place what Superchunk’s music is all about, really?


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