Release Date: May 5, 2015
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Better known as the main guy in alternative US indie legends Superchunk – and co-founder of the Merge label – Mac McCaughan has recorded solo before, as Portastatic, but he’s never released a record under his own name. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Non-Believers offers up a more fragile, exposed side of the songwriter. While the catchy, jangly hooks that have defined Superchunk for so long are present on these 10 tracks, they feel more tentative, gentle – even slightly unsure of themselves.
It's hard to believe that after a quarter century of Superchunk and more than 20 years of Portastatic, Mac McCaughan finally released a solo album under his own name with 2015's Non-Believers. It's even harder to believe that his talent for writing breathtaking, heartbreaking songs hasn't dimmed even a tiny bit. Adding some traces of synth pop, stripping away most traces of guitar noise, this album presents a thoughtful, introspective version of Mac that is close to what he was doing with Portastatic but different in one crucial regard.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Superchunk’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In, an album that contains no actual strings, but nonetheless found the Chapel Hill indie rockers ready to embrace what they signify: maturation, sophistication, evolution. When Mac McCaughan declared, "I think I’m hyper enough as it is" on the album’s opening salvo, the statement functioned as both a readymade bumper-sticker slogan for Superchunk’s patented pogo-pop, and an admission of fatigue, signalling the refinement process that would play out over the band’s subsequent, pre-hiatus discography. Not coincidentally, around the same time, McCaughan promoted his solo project Portastatic from scrappy, sporadic pursuit to an equally prolific going concern, allowing him to not just quiet down, but branch out and explore sounds—easy-listening pop, Tropicalia, jazz, incidental soundtrack music, Prefab Sprout covers—that even a mellowing Superchunk wouldn’t accommodate.
The first solo album under Mac McCaughan’s real name is a suitable departure from his day job in pop punk legends Superchunk. For while there are inevitably traces of the hyper-teen McCaughan screaming with his endlessly escalating excitement, ‘Non-Believers’ reflects his increasing years, as he revisits an aesthetic that burgeoned in the Eighties. Most notably, this endeavour drowns in 14-foot swells of melancholy.
At this point in his career, Mac McCaughan could be content to simply sit back and rest on his laurels. After all, he founded one of the indie world’s most prominent ensembles in the form of Superchunk, created an outstanding side project under the banner Portastatic, and even formed a highly successful independent record label, Merge, to support his endeavors. However, instead of retreating from the world, he’s stayed present and focused, overseeing the biz and continuing his musical pursuits in perfect multi-tasking synchronicity.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mac McCaughan would be so deft at painting a hormone-addled, John Hughes-ian portrait of teenhood; he’s essentially been soundtracking youth culture the DIY way since Superchunk’s part-time-job-themed “Slack Motherfucker” first blasted out of stereos in 1990. But after ten albums with North Carolina’s favorite indie-punk lifers and nine with the nominally quieter side-project Portastatic, it’s a bit shocking that Chapel Hill scene staple and Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan has never before put out a full-length album under his own name. Citing his past wish to use a pseudonym over his given name, he’s said, “There’s something about it that’s way too ‘look at me’.
Rock and roll is inherently nostalgic at this point. Sure, you can play it or listen to it without obsessing over or thinking about the past, but on a fundamental level you’re always going to wrestle with its decades of history, and with your own history with it. Mac McCaughan’s new album Non-Believers is especially nostalgic for fans of his work, both with the band Superchunk and with his previous solo project Portastatic.
If you’re going to name your 2010 comeback album Majesty Shredding, you need to be a band of adequate largeness and loudness. Superchunk is that band. It’d be easy to assume that the debut solo effort from lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan (who has also recorded under the still pretty Superchunk-y moniker Portastatic) would be cut from the same cloth, with dense guitar riffs, high-energy choruses, and heaping piles of feedback.
Non-Believers, the first true solo effort from Superchunk's nasal frontman, is a departure from his main band's high-energy slacker rock. While the sound is certainly more intimate and low-key than his main band's penchant for guitar blasts, the album still manages to provide a fair amount of vigour to a group of songs inspired by a time when bands were, according to McCaughan, "using keyboards and drum machines to relate through their music a disaffection or alienation. "Not that keyboards and drum machines can't be vigorous, but McCaughan is at his most successful when they're more of an accompaniment to his driving guitar, as on the thick, cheery swell of "Only Do," or smooth haze of "Our Way Free.
Navigating nostalgia in the rock world is tricky business. For all those young bands paying homage to eras they didn’t live through there’s a real danger of being swallowed alive by your influences. Just as dangerous are the classicists of those bygone days, railing against ‘music today’ like an old man shaking an impotent fist at the juvenile delinquents jamming in the basement next door.
Mac McCaughan has always had a vibrant parallel solo career alongside his main squeeze Superchunk, mainly with the shapeshifting Portastatic. Still, incredibly, Non-Believers is the first solo album McCaughan is releasing under his own name. Judging by the significant demarcation between this music and his previous extracurricular songwriting, the moniker shift makes sense.