The first album Mac McCaughan released under his own name, 2015's Non-Believers, made synthesizers a big part of the mix, giving his typically punchy songs a sparkling new wave sheen. Fast-forward a few years, and McCaughan has become something of a synthesizer boffin. He cut a keyboard-based reimagining of Non-Believers called Staring at Your Hologram, performed a piece at Moogfest in 2016, and a few years later recorded an album of synth and harp duets with Mary Lattimore. This devotion to synthesized sounds bleeds deeply into The Sound of Yourself. Not only are the punchy indie rockers and sweeping ballads filled with all manner of pads, patches, oscillations, and sweeps, but the track list is split fairly evenly to afford space for keyboard-focused instrumentals. These songs are pitched somewhere between new age and experimental, never sinking into easy listening territory thanks to Mac's unerring skill at crafting melodies. They provide nice little rest stops between the pop songs, one of the best small batches McCaughan has cooked up. It's also one of the most emotional, which is saying something considering his back catalog.
Exhibit A is the lilting "Dawn Bends," which travels a country-rock path through misty eyes while sporting a chorus ready-made for singing softly to yourself on a lonely late-night walk. It helps that most of Yo La Tengo are on hand to bolster Mac with some lovely harmony vocals and a flaming guitar solo. "Burn a Fax" is a different shade of melancholy, aiming for nocturnal synth pop balladry and nailing it dead center. The vocal turn by Mackenzie Scott of TORRES is stunning and the sax solos (three of them!) at the end by the Mountain Goats' Matt Douglas bring it home in a noisy swirl. Many of McCaughan's famous friends do indeed show up, and while their contributions -- and his ability to add them to the arrangements -- make for a trainspotter's delight, the real sustenance here is the songwriting and performances of the titular head. The years have been kind to his skills, which have never faded, and along with the aforementioned tear tracks, he knocks out a couple of snappy rockers that with a little more guitar could have been Superchunk hits. The majestic "I Hear a Radio" is one of them, "Circling Around" is another. It's almost not fair that one person can hit those heights on such a consistent basis, expand into new sonic territory with such beautiful results, and for good measure come up with a synth pop nugget as good as "Sleep Donor." It's the song that best melds his interests in keyboards and guitars, and provides a midpoint for an album of two halves that comes together in one perfect whole. The Sound of Yourself is another heartbreaking, spirit-lifting highlight in McCaughan's long and captivating career and shouldn't be missed by longtime fans or new converts.