Challenge for a Civilized Society was written in "a little more than a month" after Unwound took a break of a year and a half without writing any songs. The album was produced by the band's long-time collaborator, Steve Fisk, and recorded from August 1, 1997, to August 15, 1997, at John and Stu's in Seattle, Washington. According to singer and guitarist Justin Trosper, "With Challenge, we tried to expand our studio sound more than anything. The song structures are tighter and the album contains some of our best songs, but as a whole I think it's not our best album. It was less inspired than the others. Steve Fisk's production is really awesome. He does things that most other people would never think of. I think most producers are wankers with no ideas except commercial potential. Challenge just makes me want to make an album that goes even further out, to really question the whole process even more. What is a record? What is production? What's the audience? What's an artist, and so on?" An early title for the album was Empire. The album was released on January 13, 1998 by the independent record label Kill Rock Stars, which also released the band's previous four albums. The album cover features a photo of Boston's stained-glass Mapparium. The album spent a total of 16 weeks on the CMJ Radio 200 Chart for 1998, peaking at No. 4.The band toured extensively in support of the album.

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