I Love the Eighties

Postgrads: Juliana Hatfield, Mac McCaughan (of Portastatic), and Frank Black. Photo: Illustration by Christopher Sleboda

I was in college when the category known as “college rock” was popularized, and though it was as much a marketing conceit as anything else, I bought the concept immediately. The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, the Blake Babies, the Pixies, and Pavement: These bands weren’t just my idols, they felt like my peers, and a good part of the pleasure I took in their music was imagining that there wasn’t much that separated me from them. Like the earliest punks, they made a virtue of their amateurism, of starting things without knowing where or how they’d end. And for someone like me, on the scary precipice of adulthood, that was an incredibly exciting fantasy: the notion that sheer guts, plus a willingness to bare your weaknesses (no vocal talent necessary!), could make you into a rock star.

Then we all grew up, and while I tried to sort out a career for myself, my favorite bands went about ruining theirs. The breakups were ugly—and then came the solo albums. Most people quit paying attention, intuiting that aging college rockers are about as likely to recapture their youthful talents as aging baseball players. But I hung on. This was my music, after all; I could parse its microscopic distinctions. Just because others stopped caring about it didn’t mean I had to. So I kept buying the records by Juliana Hatfield (Blake Babies), Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü), Frank Black (Pixies), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), and Mac McCaughan (Superchunk, Portastatic), and though I lost all claim to coolness along the way, I have now been vindicated—they all have new records out (or will soon), and none of them suck. One or two even flirt with greatness.

It makes sense to start with poor Bob Mould, whom even the most devout fans had all but disowned. In Hüsker Dü, Mould wrote fast, angry pop songs, blasting them out with his barrel-chested roar of a voice and beautiful, fuzzed-out guitars. But on his own, Mould caved under the weight of extreme self-consciousness. He toggled between weepy acoustic stuff and rigid, joyless power pop; he took time off and wrote scripts for pro wrestling; he returned to make a dreadful electronic record.

On Body of Song, Mould, now a popular D.J. in Washington, D.C., clubs, has regrouped. Marrying his sturdy rock-guitar talents to lively beats, he’s found a comfort zone. The album has flaws—the vocals are much too polished, and the lyrics to songs like “I Am Vision, I Am Sound” and “Days of Rain” reek of middle-school poetry—but it’s built on that mix of sunny melodies and morbid sentiments that is Mould’s peculiar gift.

Like Mould, Juliana Hatfield walks among the wounded. As a Blake Baby, she was a button-cute bassist who inspired a thousand crushes and could do nice harmonies, too; when she went solo, she aimed for the big time, pitching herself as a bulimic virgin. That made for freaky interviews, but no hits. Giving up on MTV, she slavishly devoted herself to the guitar and released a slew of ragged, emotionally raw albums, of which Made in China is the latest. Her songs still revolve mostly around the adolescent hell of looking right and pleasing jerky guys, a shtick that would be old if Hatfield, well into her thirties, didn’t genuinely sound as if she were still living through it. All hail the immortal teenager, long may she rock.

Frank Black, on the other hand, seems determined to show his maturity. Onstage with the reunited Pixies, playing to huge crowds, Black has been howling away, as gloriously unhinged as ever. But his latest solo album, Honeycomb, is a gentle country-and-R&B record made in Nashville with top session players. It is a noble effort, modeled on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, but the results are underwhelming. Black’s greatest talent is his incredible dynamic range as a singer—he can scream and whisper and otherwise throttle his voice around in astonishing ways. But when he plays it straight, as he does relentlessly on Honeycomb, he just sounds ordinary.

As the singer of Pavement, Stockton, California’s greatest (only?) cultural export, Stephen Malkmus elevated boredom to an art. He was beloved for his diffident brilliance. Even after they had been together for years, Pavement still had the improvisational air of a band playing together for the first time, with Malkmus singing as if he were simultaneously trying to finish the Times crossword. Within a band, his distraction had mesmerizing appeal. But how could that be sustained on its own? On Face the Truth, Malkmus’s third solo try, he does something novel: He lets us see him sweat. The songs, which have the choppy angles and elegant dissonance of Pavement’s, are painstakingly layered with keyboards and all manner of funky blurps and beeps. It all sounds very labor-intensive—and pretty smart, too. Malkmus will never compete with the legend of Pavement, but who’d have guessed he’d make such a valiant effort?

Finally, there is Mac McCaughan, the living exception to every rule about rock music. Even by the inclusionary standards of college rock, McCaughan seemed misplaced when he started Superchunk in the late eighties. He looked half his age, sang with a squirrely little voice, and went to Columbia. A career in rock? Maybe in the accounting department. Instead, inspired by a lazy Kinkos employee, McCaughan wrote an irresistible screed called “Slack Motherfucker”—“Yeah, I’m working / But I’m not working for you / Slack motherfucker!”—and the major labels were all over him.

McCaughan somehow knew better than to go that route and started his own label, Merge Records, geared so that even a record selling a few thousand copies could make money for the artist and for the company. In the past sixteen years, Merge has put out great albums by the Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and the Arcade Fire, in addition to many wonderful bands you’ve never heard of. Superchunk also kept making records, each one better than the last, as McCaughan honed his punk-guitar riffing and fearless yelping. Plus, McCaughan recorded under the name Portastatic, his own R&D unit for songwriting, and—why not?—also launched a jazz label called Wobbly Rail.

Now Superchunk is on hiatus, as bassist (and Merge co-founder) Laura Ballance tends to her new baby. That puts Portastatic at the top of McCaughan’s priorities, and the result is the best record of his career, a collision of the idiosyncratic charms of Portastatic with the exuberant rock power of Superchunk. At 38, he still sings like a broken-voiced 13-year-old. But rather than disguise this limitation, he flaunts it. As he has since the heyday of college rock, McCaughan is testing himself, reaching for something a bit beyond where he’s been before. And for that, after all these years, I consider him the unsung king of rock.

Made in China
Juliana Hatfield.
Ye Olde Records.

Body of Song
Bob Mould.
Yep Roc Records.

Frank Black.
Back Porch Records.

Face the Truth
Stephen Malkmus.
Matador Records.

Bright Ideas
Merge Records.

I Love the Eighties