Does Mac McCaughan possess a musical trademark more distinctive than his voice?
Sure, his thin, incisive riffs have long cut through the churn of Superchunk. And yes, his lyrics have often been wonderfully agitated and impudent, whether directed at infamously slack coworkers or at all the people with whom he's through. But it's hard to imagine the rise of any of his projects—and, arguably, Merge Records—without McCaughan's adenoidal tone, a perpetually entreating instrument whose youthful ardor seems to have existed in amber for more than a quarter century now. It cracks when he croons, frays when he screams. It threads together his entire oeuvre.
That's why, at least at first, McCaughan's new Staring at Your Hologram makes for such an uncanny listen. McCaughan took the tapes from last year's synth-heavy Non-Believers and reimagined them as an almost entirely instrumental collage, an uninterrupted 40-minute record where florid keyboards and scattered machine beats work to form a pillowed cocoon. Here, the thick riff of "Box Batteries" hums beneath Technicolor arpeggios, a vile monster suddenly tamed by pastel accessories. The wafting electronics of "Mystery Flu" shape the lace around a four-on-the-floor beat, like neon rays scattered from the surface of a Krautrock pulse.
The results conjure a wide range of instrumental predecessors—from the immersive majesties of Harmonia to the propulsive machinations of Collections of Colonies of Bees, from the fuzzy warmth of a Kompakt mix to the sinister linings of a John Carpenter score. Most of these touchstones were evident enough on Non-Believers, where they interacted with influences like The Cure or Tall Dwarfs. Here, though, they speak only to one another, as McCaughan works to web them together in ways that, especially at this point in his career, seem novel.
It doesn't always work; the stitches show early and often, and the record sometimes feels like a game of "spot the reference" with someone whose record collection is, well, very good. If there was mystery left in Non-Believers, or in the sound sources McCaughan had in mind, Staring at Your Hologram dispatches it.
It's fitting that, through all his shows and sessions, McCaughan's voice has mostly managed to remain intact, the Triangle's musical corollary to Mike Krzyzewski's jet-black hair. Whether recruiting new energy to Merge, revitalizing Superchunk in earnest after a long break, or dropping the Portastatic moniker in order to make a record about nostalgia and innocence down in his basement, McCaughan has long seemed to be striving to retain his youthful connection to music by reinventing his relationship with it.
Staring at Your Hologram feels like another instance of that impulse, another chance to skirt signs of age by trying another new trick. This is neither perfect as a stand-alone nor essential for fans of Non-Believers, but McCaughan's fellow indie rock giants have delivered much more awkward, much less fun attempts at reinvention than this in their own time.
At least this one is nice to stare at, just for a little while.