Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Our Way Free: My Review Of The Superb Solo Album From Mac McCaughan Of Superchunk

There was a brief moment in late 1993 when the repeated closing refrain of "The First Part" seemed to be the product of a certain Manchester legend. Listening to that astonishing track from Superchunk's Foolish, I heard then, and still hear now, the echo of the everyday lyrics of one Bernard Sumner of New Order. And surely I'm not the first person to think that "One good minute could last me a whole year!" sounds a lot like -- has the same sense of the revelation of the commonplace as -- a line from "Regret" -- or a similar tune -- from New Order. While the musicians might have been oceans apart in 1993, their styles worlds apart too, there was for me something similar in both tracks in 1993. Both seemed to hit at some sharp awareness of things that was less pretension and more an acute sense of being alive in the moment. That those 2 singles from the year I graduated college remain so dear to me shouldn't be a surprise, or chalked up to the effects of nostalgia.

Borderline anthems both, those 2 cuts are ones that have thrilled me ever since I heard them 22 years ago. While New Order's fortunes were on a decided downward spiral after that single, Superchunk's were only rising. The band became more and more popular and they went from being a noise outfit in the early 1990's to alt-rock survivors and indie label pioneers.

Which is a very heavy sort of reminder of the shadow of Superchunk that is gonna hang over anything this cat touches. Mac McCaughan, founder of Merge Records, main-man behind Superchunk and Portastatic, has done what really didn't need to be done...but what seems like a brilliant idea now that I've heard the record. Yep, he's recorded a solo album.

Non-Believers, out May 4 worldwide on Merge Records is, ostensibly, Mac McCaughan's first solo record. That it sounds like both Superchunk and Portastatic and quite a bit unlike either one is a testament to this guy's talents as a musician and songwriter; he's managed to simultaneously please long-time fans of his bands and go in some entirely new directions on this one.

What it comes down to here, on Non-Believers more than anywhere else, is that McCaughan, like Sumner, is one of the best lyricists in rock simply by virtue of knowing how to write what suits his own voice so well. And there I'll try to dispense with the New Order references.

First single "Lost Again" manages to make weariness sound like something that deserves to be sung about with near-joy. A sort of subdued anthem -- there's that word again -- the cut follows the keyboard-heavy opener "Your Hologram" which seems to sort of lay the template for what's to come on Non-Believers.

If the Yoda-quoting "Only Do" recalls the Boss on certain Tunnel of Love tracks, there's still more youth in Mac's voice here than old Bruce-y ever had after he hit the big time. "Mystery Flu" adds a sadness reminiscent of East River Pipe to the mood of the album while tricking out the track in late Blur electro effects. "Our Way Free" pairs one of the best choruses Mac McCaughan's ever written to keyboard noises somewhere between "Good Vibrations" and mid-period Gary Numan. If that sounds like a mess, it's not. Mac's managed to make this all sound remarkably natural and he's integrated electronic textures better than perhaps anyone this side of the fellas in Radiohead. And his concerns are decidedly more relate-able, I'd venture to say.

On the marvelous "Box Batteries", Mac sounds like he's covering himself -- think Portastatic tracks mixed with the coiled fury of Superchunk at their best. The song, with its backwards looking lyrics, is a rollicking celebration of youthful adventures every bit as affecting as Springsteen cuts. And if that comparison seems forced, it shouldn't as both Mac and Bruce are concerned with "Growing Up" in America, to paraphrase a certain song title. What's remarkable here about "Box Batteries" is that you can hear in your head how this song would have worked perfectly for any of McCaughan's other projects. That he chose to use it on this solo debut speaks to his awareness as a songwriter.

"Smile kid until you know real darkness" Mac warns on "Real Darkness" and if the results are not suitably dour it's due to the warmth he brings to his vocal performance here. Decades of screaming "Slack Motherfucker" have done apparently little damage to this guy's pipes and thank the indie gods for that.

"Barely There" keeps things down tempo, but catchy, while "Wet Leaves" offers up O.M.D.-style sweetness in the sort of track that never would have flown on most Superchunk records. To his credit, McCaughan has broadened his style here considerably and this song is a pretty great example of what he's done so well this time out. And on a record where Mac did pretty much everything, it's worth mentioning how great Annie Hayden's backing vocals are on this one.

Non-Believers closes on "Come Upstairs" which marries a Kraftwerk-inspired set of keyboard lines with some nearly-Fripp-like guitar work to great effect. McCaughan uses those disparate elements to make something very personal and the track, like many here, is wildly catchy on first listen.

On his first solo album, Superchunk's MacMcCaughan has surprised even this long-time fan. Never expecting a release this -- dare I say it? -- soulful, I find myself marvelously surprised at what he's crafted here. If this had been another guitar rave-up, it would have been Superchunk Junior, and if something too lo-fi it would have seemed too much like Portastatic. Pushing himself in new, quieter, directions has liberated McCaughan as a songwriter and he sounds more on fire here than he has in a few years. If that fire is, essentially, a slow-burn, then that's okay too. Simultaneously remarkably restrained and gleefully nostalgic, the 10 tracks on Non-Believers are the sort of things only a guy Mac's age could have possibly penned. That they come off as neither pretentious nor precious says volumes about this guy's skill as a performer.

Apparently knowing when to pull back has been Mac McCaughan's secret all along. A few decades of listening to Superchunk had me convinced that the point was the noise when, in reality, it was really the tension and the winding up. If the best 'Chunk tracks sound like the moment when things are released, the 10 cuts here are largely the build ups. Affecting, touching, and hook-y in a way that nostalgic music usually is not, the tunes on Non-Believers are stunning and the perfect progression for a guy who's written so much stuff that's given me so much pleasure as a listener for so very long.

Non-Believers by Mac McCaughan is out on Monday via Merge Records.