Portastatic | Be Still Please (Merge)
Songs about getting older are an established part of the rock idiom, but for men they’re traditionally framed by wistful resignation. Their good ol’ days and reckless party nights were all too short, and then they got some townie girl knocked up and were suddenly weighed down by all this responsibility. It’s a discouraging narrative for those of us on the lip of 30. Old-rocker anthems seem designed to convince us that once we pass 26 life turns into a death march through a Cheever-esque asunderland of stifling suburbs, sexless marriages, and brat kids. It’s the sort of shit that’ll keep you up at night wondering if 11th grade wasn’t actually the best year of your life after all.
Portastatic’s ninth full-length, Be Still Please, takes no part in this noxious mythology–it’s a record about getting older, about being a husband, a father, and an American, but it plunges forward into the challenges, fears, blessings, and joys inherent to grown-up family life. It’s a strange album for its earnestness and honesty, but also because front man Mac McCaughan seems to be hitting a hot streak 21 years into his career–this is his 23rd album, counting releases by his bands Superchunk and Bricks. Most of the Superchunk diehards who make up Portastatic’s audience have long moved on, which frees McCaughan to tend to his vision without worrying about holding the hands of his old fans. It’s their loss, though: Be Still Please and 2005’s Bright Ideas are some of his finest work, both as a songwriter and a lyricist. Plus it’s a relief to see 39 painted as a bright picture–despite its thorny realism, the new album’s full of hope and utterly free of self-pity.
Superchunk classics like “Driveway to Driveway” captured the bittersweet melancholy of dawning adulthood, and Be Still Please follows that feeling into parenthood and beyond. McCaughan portrays it as a sometimes difficult trudge, but its domestic routines are comforting as well as boring–he finds something sweet in averageness. In his narrative the passing of the years is marked by Xs on a calendar, the skinny arms of his growing daughter, the gathering of dust, the knowledge of the exact dimensions of the marriage bed, the deepening understanding of the meaning of commitment. On “Getting Saved” he delivers a line as touching as it is eviscerating: “I decided to freak you out / To see if there’s a limit on love / When you discover what that promise is really all about.” But though the “we” of the record is a literal family, not the metaphorical family of the punk scene or “we” the drunken malcontents of this crap band, McCaughan hasn’t let go of his political indignation–he keeps
one eye on his home life and the other on the administration.
In “You Blanks” he sings,
“All my songs used to end the same way /
‘Everything’s gonna be OK!’ /
You fuckers made that impossible to say.”
McCaughan still sings like a congested girl, but in the past few years he’s learned the contours and limits of his own voice and how best to use it. Working in the same pale hues as latter-day Wilco, Be Still Please is orchestral but doesn’t seem to be trying to prove anything by it–the strings and woodwinds are there because they sound good with this sort of tender indie rock. And in between the countrified dips and Jobim-style lullabies, Mac rips molten solos aplenty, busting some of the hottest six-string what-fer this side of Green Mind. Though he’s been around for decades now, he doesn’t sound overly familiar–he legitimately has 23 different albums in him, not eight versions of the same three.
Though indie-rock audiences tend to view sticking it out with some disdain–an artist can overstay his welcome simply by continuing to record–that attitude blinds them to the potential for a late-stage masterstroke like this. Be Still Please is a uniquely American pastoral, where the family can be a refuge against a world that,
as McCaughan sings, “takes way more than an eye for an eye.” It posits the radical idea that familiarity breeds contentment.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maggie Fost.