Mac McCaughan has always had a vibrant parallel solo career alongside his main squeeze Superchunk, mainly with the shapeshifting Portastatic. Still, incredibly, Non-Believers is the first solo album McCaughan is releasing under his own name. Judging by the significant demarcation between this music and his previous extracurricular songwriting, the moniker shift makes sense. Both thematically and instrumentally, the keyboard-heavy Non-Believers is a loving homage to all permutations of ’80s alternative rock: New Order’s thrumming synthpop (the melancholic “Lost Again”), primitive electropop (the Yaz-like “Mystery Flu”), Cocteau Twins’ foggy shoegaze (the slo-mo, ethereal “Real Darkness”), jangly Heartland rock (“Barely There”), and glacial Sarah Records-reminiscent pop (the chirpy, sighing “Wet Leaves,” featuring Annie Hayden on guest vocals). Even the album’s more guitar-oriented moments—in particular the scorching fuzzbomb “Box Batteries” and skinny-tie power-pop tribute “Only Do” and its zippy synths—have a retro bent.
Non-Believers’ lyrics also have cheeky interpolations of ’80s touchstones: “Only Do” not-so-subtly references the wisdom of Yoda, along with a fleeting (Bauhaus-esque?) nod to being “in a flat field” and plenty of Smiths mad libs (“Frankly, take me anywhere ’cause I’m living in the dark”). Yet McCaughan’s songs aren’t novelties: Non-Believers is also a tribute to the emotional directness of John Hughes teen movies, especially in the way the songs capture the angst and emotional aimlessness inspired by growing up in the suburbs. McCaughan doesn’t sugarcoat his wistfulness or vulnerability as he acknowledges the pain of unrequited love (“Your Hologram”), captures how a stifling town can suffocate a misfit (“Real Darkness”), finds a kindred spirit in disaffection (“Box Batteries”) or attempts to reclaim a sense of self (“Lost Again”). Yet there’s something unbearably sweet and irresistible about the record’s turbulent roller coaster of heartbreak and longing. Listening to Non-Believers resembles the experience of watching ’80s movies as an adult, when the adolescent agony and drama is still relatable and realistic—but yet (thankfully) no longer an ongoing present concern.