BY JOHN SCHACHT
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.
No, the best way to deal with nostalgia is to confront it head-on — in the case of Mac McCaughan’s Non-Believers (Merge), to embrace it fully and by doing so, escape its gravitational pull. The first release under McCaughan’s own name (rather than the Portastatic moniker the Superchunk front man previously used for non-Superchunk efforts), Non-Believers explores nostalgia itself, training a spotlight on the early-‘80s transition from punk to new wave/post-punk.
What intrigued McCaughan was an era when synths and drum machines became the new means of expressing disaffection and alienation from society, school, suburbia, etc. McCaughan had in mind a duo of fictional teen goth outcasts with only each other and the music of the Cure, OMD, the Cocteau Twins et al. to accompany their transition into the compromises of adulthood.
The nostalgia may be as rich as the layers of familiar synths that blanket these songs like Tule fog, but McCaughan’s themes transcend their specific era to embrace any thinking young person who’s ever had to find happiness “living in the margins,” as he puts it on the rocking, keytar-vs.-guitar solo-accented “Our Way Free.”
What really keeps Non-Believers from the frozen-in-amber nostalgia decried in rock-today critiques like Simon Reynolds’ Retromania is the music McCaughan’s composed here, and played primarily by himself. He may relate to the kids in these songs, but it’s from the vantage point of adulthood — one that features a McCaughan who long-ago developed his own sound and songwriting aesthetic. So for him, channeling an obvious Joy Division bass line (“Lost Again”), OMD synth-symphony (“Mystery Flu”) or poppy Cure tempo (“Barely There”) isn’t like trying on a second skin; they form part of a DNA that is distinctly McCaughanian, and Non-Believers overflows with the type of memorable hooks that give Superchunk its iconic sound.
The result is a conversation between generations going in all directions; McCaughan talks to his younger self and any angst-ridden young person since then, and they’re talking back to us adults. On the brilliant scene-setting disc-opener “Your Hologram,” McCaughan conjures one of those basement parties any suburban survivor (or “Driveway to Driveway” stumbler) remembers, all the while staring at this hologram of a memory and “trying to make it real”; on the following “Lost Again,” driven by that prominent Joy Division bass line, McCaughan watches his young Goth driving down the suburban streets looking for a friend or lover — but it’s clear he’s looking for himself, too, only in real time: “I’m kind of looking for you/but I’m kind of looking for me.” The brilliance of that hall of mirrors-line is that today’s McCaughan is using his young stand-in to do the same.
But McCaughan doesn’t shy from unabashed nostalgia, either. There’s palpable envy in recalling the energy and chaos of that transition between adolescence and adulthood. He captures the excitement of first love in “Only Do,” an Echo & the Bunnymen-like anthem — “You said, ‘I’m no miracle, in fact I’ll be your fatal flaw”/Oh, but I don’t believe you/even better, I don’t care/Cause when I’m with you I got nothing to lose” — and turns the unambiguous joy of zero responsibility (plus keys to your stepdad’s car) into the fuzzbomb rocker “Box Batteries,” where you “bring your tapes and disaffection/(and) the rest is understood.”
Non-Believers slips masterfully between vantage points and emotions, and there are times when McCaughan looks back with the concern of a parent for a child — as if he could pass down to the young the knowledge that, ‘yes, this angst, too, shall pass.’ But it’s never that simple on this record, which is what makes it resonate. “Real Darkness,” with its Cocteau Twins shimmer, delves brilliantly into the DMZ of teenage emotions. Addressing his thinly-clothed fictional Goths amidst Alpine canyons of guitar reverb, McCaughan concedes that adults will tell them, “’smile, kid, smile’ until you know real darkness” in an effort to get them to cheer the fuck up. But having absorbed — and remembered — both sides of the equation, McCaughan can also speak with authority in their voice when he sings “you can hold my hand through these years/or you can look away/but my stuff is real like your stuff and I’ll be you someday anyway.”
That sympathy is, in the end, what makes this record so successful. This isn’t some blind paean to the old days, or an “if I knew then what I know now” lecture. It’s a reminder of how important the past and our memories of it are to who we become, but also what a trap it can be getting stuck there. On “Barely There,” which hums along on that “In Between Days” Cure vibe, McCaughan laments time’s passing and the faded Polaroids it leaves behind: “Now we’re barely there/like a phantom or a flare/but we were solid once, I swear/now you hardly have to care/cause we’re barely there.”
But Non-Believers ends with “Come Upstairs,” an imprecation to not get stuck in the past because the present and future hold plenty of worthwhile memory-making events. As oscillating synths and processed guitar leads zip through the song like meteors in a speckled night sky, the record fulfills its narrative arc when the narrator exhorts us to come upstairs – from that hologram-filled basement at the start —to see new galaxies (of the musical variety) exploding. “Don’t you want to hear them go boom?” he asks.
Running a successful record label for 25 years requires a lot of new galaxies, of course. But with Non-Believers, McCaughan reminds us any galaxy is capable of providing transcendence, and can tell us fundamental things about ourselves — our pasts, to be sure, but our futures as well.