For Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan, it’s interesting that the record that sounds the least like anything he’s ever done is the first one he’s put his own name on. McCaughan has at times stepped outside the confines of his principal musical endeavor to stretch out with Portastatic, but Non-Believers finds him almost directly in between the lo-fi tinkering of his side gig and the blistering anthems of Superchunk. Constructed at home in and around his kids’ sleep and school schedules and outside his other day job of co-running one of the indie world’s most successful labels, it’s neither categorically loud nor quiet, acoustic or electric. Instead, it’s a collection of 10 songs that lean more new wave than no wave, but with McCaughan’s pop-punk sensibility clearly at the core.

Everything McCaughan touches sounds youthful thanks to his helium voice and the sheer exuberance that comes from his music, but Non-Believers is more subdued and introspective. Continuing the darker subject matter of Superchunk’s excellent I Hate Music, it represents that longing feeling when there’s growing distance between your youth and today. McCaughan focuses on themes of isolation, bringing in drum machines and synthesizers to create a mood that complements the mostly downtempo nature of the meticulously crafted and produced tracks, and he plays pretty much everything here. The result is McCaughan’s most varied effort to date, and it somehow manages to come across as not the least bit forced or inauthentic.

McCaughan wastes very little time showing that he’s up to something different. From the opening kaleidoscope of rainy-day keyboards that ring in “Your Hologram,” it’s clear he’s not trying to replicate the electricity of Superchunk. There’s extra shimmer to his distorted electric guitar, which comes through as U2-esque reverb during the arpeggio of “Lost Again,” finding McCaughan feeling broken and delivering lines like, “All the houses are split in two.” There’s barely a noticeable trace of guitar in the soundscape that is “Mystery Flu,” which starts in a fog of funeral organ and thumping bass before a shimmer of backing keyboard chimes and synth passages take shape. The dream-like “Wet Leaves,” featuring vocals from Annie Hayden of Spent, offers a sense of McCaughan’s electronic tinkering, as he builds floating, morose passages of chords and simple riffs, though his experimentation doesn’t always totally connect. The drum machines and 80s guitar of “Real Darkness” are a bold leap that comes across a bit hollow, but the song is mostly redeemed by one of McCaughan’s more unique vocal efforts and the multi-part harmonies delivering truly soulful pop.

Though Non-Believers without question finds McCaughan staking new musical territory, there is still some familiarity beneath the covers. He’s never had a shortage of riffs, and that remains true here, though they often don’t standalone or they find themselves as melodic centers. Solos are mostly eschewed or wrapped in reverb or crushing octaves, the difference being added layers. With its crunching guitar and driving bass and drum, “Our Way Free” could have easily fit on I Hate Music, while the punk-y distortion of “Box Batteries” combines McCaughan’s trademark thrash with his uncanny pop leaning. The scorching electricity of the latter gets a lift from soaring synths and multi-tracked vocals delivering lines like, “We don’t go too far/ Oh, but we might.” Even the jangle pop of “Barely There,” probably the most straightforward effort here, manages to pack in one of McCaughan’s perfect, booming choruses.

Not long after the jubilant, swirling synth intro of “Only Do,” one that could be found in a Summerteeth-era Wilco song, Mac McCaughan sings of the stage of love where it feels like anything and everything is possible. Those early moments when there is nothing but plans and dreams ahead and no history in the mirror. McCaughan directs, “There is no try/ There is only do,” not only sensing that nothing stands in the way, but also truly believing it. Similarly, Non-Believers must have felt something like a new start for McCaughan, as he seemingly embraces change without a hint of hesitation. Though he may be looking back, McCaughan still somehow comes across as a writer with plenty of runway left in front of him.

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