Mac McCaughan - Non-Believers
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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. Those records often felt like a way of escaping the pressure of Superchunk or an outlet for songs that weren't quite right for the band. Non-Believers is truly an album, tightly constructed and planned out to the last synth swoop. Built on themes of nostalgia and memories of the music he grew up on, McCaughan bleeds emotion all over the songs as usual, but with a restraint that adds to the elegiac feel of many of the songs. It's fairly well balanced between these kinds of melancholic tracks (like the almost painfully beautiful "Real Darkness" and "Your Hologram") and tender pop that jangles in fine late-'80s style ("Barely There") or classic McCaughan style ("Come Upstairs"). Only occasionally does he delve into the kind of anthemic guitar rock that Superchunk have basically perfected. It happens on the pulsing "Box Batteries" and more interestingly on the synth-heavy "Only Do," which sounds like a Portastatic/Rentals collaboration. His vocals sound predictably great on these kinds of songs, but anyone who has followed him from the beginning shouldn't be surprised at how far out of the park he knocks the ballads. Just the way his falsetto crooning leads into the chorus of "Real Darkness" is proof enough that Mac isn't just a screamer, he's a singer. Throughout the album, McCaughan's use of synths as coloring and as a lead instrument adds a new twist to his sound and is quite welcome. He must have quite a stash to choose from in his recording space, given all the different tones he gets. He also has heard a few Ultravox and A Flock of Seagulls albums along the way, as "Wet Leaves" and "Mystery Flu" make clear. Another thing that becomes clear as the album moves from one impressive song to the next is that maybe Superchunk should be Mac's side project from now on. Solo work, if he can keep making records this special, should be where he focuses his prodigious talents.