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Review: Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan Goes For a Nostalgia Trip on Solo LP ‘Non-Believers’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: May 04, 2015
Label: Merge Records

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’.”

Listening to Non-Believers is like clasping hands with an old friend: It’s warm, accessible, and sweetly familiar. Plus, McCaughan is noticeably less reticent; he sounds every bit as comfortable behind the mic as if he were flanked by ‘Chunk guitarist Jim Wilbur or Portastatic’s Claire Ashby. He demonstrates a keen willingness to break apart his three-chord past and play around with the pieces in a way that Superchunk’s craggy guitar-pop and Portastatic’s lo-fi ruminations only took so far.

Though he experiments with slow-burning synths and the intimate tap-tap-taps of a drum machine that sounds like it’s never left his room, McCaughan continues to draw restless spirit from the punk world in which he came of age on the adventure-seeking “Box Batteries” and the sentimental “Barely There,” but now he’ll just as naturally weave in fuzzy pop textures or a smattering of Talk Talk-era new-wave.

Lyrics like “Now I tried holding tight to you / But you slipped away in time / Faded like this road trip photo / From 1989” and “You wrote letters in the pages of the art books / You kept stacked up on your floor… I have them right here in this drawer,” are steeped in adolescent nostalgia that turns them into John Cusack-and-boombox mini-movies. With its looping, echoing guitar line, the ardently romantic single “Lost Again” bears a striking resemblance to another ’80s classic: U2’s “With or Without You,” while his boyish squeak seeps into the next track, the synth-swept “Only Do.” “There is no try / There is only do / I’m on a roller-coaster only going up with you,” McCaughan sings, using a quintessentially adolescent reference to evoke a more impressionable time, when the “miracle” of his affection could in fact be his “fatal flaw.”

While it’s certainly noteworthy that a household name (in certain communities of aging suburbanites, anyway) like McCaughan would find a new angle into to the been-there-done-that memory market (plus the added benefit of middle-age perspective), he’s not exactly pushing the next Moog revivalist movement forward. What the Superchunk frontman does best on Non-Believers is give our #throwback-obsessed culture a reason to look back that won’t turn you into a pillar of salt.