Photo: Press (via Merge Records)

Mac McCaughan: Non-Believers

Ultimately, Non-Believers is the kind of album that needs no backstory to endear it or Mac McCaughan to the masses.

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.

Nevertheless, McCaughan has generally been reticent about putting out albums under his own name, not so much out of modesty but rather because he prefers not to carry the weight and responsibility all on his own. The new album, entitled Non-Believers, was originally conceived as a means of collecting and consolidating some unused material intended for other purposes but never used. However, as the project progressed, McCaughan rethought his strategy and opted instead to write some new songs and repurpose the others. What originally was intended as a kind of hodgepodge odds-and-sods collection eventually transformed entirely, turning into his paean to ‘80s synth rock, a formula exemplified by bands such as Depeche Mode, OMD, the Cure, the Cocteau Twins, and Echo & the Bunnymen.

That indeed may have been the intent, but what’s emerged is a surprisingly upbeat and infectious set of songs, brimming with melodies that practically guarantee a connection even on first listen. Where his models generally roamed through moodier and much darker environs, McCaughan generally remains in pure pop and rock mode, his euphoric vocals adding an airy effervescence that belies any dire circumstance. The tempos move at a frenzied pace, mooting any crooning and keeping it all kinetic. Several of these tracks would qualify as able anthemic rockers, “Only Do”, “Barely There”, and “Our Way Free” chief among them.

Synths do enter the mix, and the shimmering tones of “Lost Again” and the New Wave verve of “Box Batteries” do adhere to McCaughan’s professed intents. Still, given the cool, casual vibe of “Your Hologram”, it’s also apparent that an eager accessibility still remained a prime directive for McCaughan in making the album. So while there’s a hint of atmospheric ambiance spread throughout the music, the majority of the album is exceedingly accessible and easy to embrace. For all his alternative inclinations, McCaughan knows how to navigate a most assured pop approach, while still ensuring that his edgier instincts remain intact.

Ultimately, Non-Believers is the kind of album that needs no backstory to endear it to the masses. Familiarity with McCaughan, his various outfits, or the label that he’s overseen so successfully aren’t necessary prerequisites. In fact, the only thing that’s the least bit ambiguous is the supposed theme that inspired the songs, a fascination fraught with themes of discovery, isolation, alienation, and ambiguity. Heady stuff, for sure, but propelled by enthusiastic melodies, Non-Believers becomes the kind of album that can woo even the most reluctant listener.

RATING 7 / 10