You are reading this review a week after the album’s release, but there’s a reason for that: I actually waited to buy the LP and give it several proper spins on my turntable before kicking off the writing process. Any seasoned fan of Shellac knows that the band (comprising Steve Albini, Bob Weston and Todd Trainer) advocates vinyl as the proper, intended medium for listening. As such, they tend to stray away from releasing traditional singles or press downloads in promotion of their record releases. The Chicago-based math rockers also care very little about keeping up the rigor of a typical professional band; all three have other jobs that support them. Over 25 years together, the trio have only released six albums — one of those was only released to direct friends of the band, and this will mark the second release in a row that follows a seven year gap of silence.
All these factors together mean that a Shellac album is trickier than most to review, but those same qualities make everything the band does uncompromisingly fantastic. That’s not to say that there aren’t fan favorites. In particular, the more angular, to-the-point rock on 1994’s At Action Park and 2000’s 1000 Hurts tended to spark higher critical acclaim. But 1998’s Terraform and 2007’s Excellent Italian Greyhound pulled their weight by offering expansive, often experimental takes on Albini et al’s core approach. To put it as shortly as possible, Dude Incredible tends to take the approach of the former grouping, but not without incorporating some important lessons gleaned from the band’s more ambitious moments. For instance, the use of space on a song like “The End of Radio” is incorporated more subtly throughout these newer compositions, showing that Shellac has evolved over time without sacrificing their guttural instincts.
Dude Incredible features two rather distinct sides, both focusing on different aspects of human nature and American life. Side A focuses heavily on instinct and survival, kicking off with a title track that somewhat recalls the inertia of 2007’s “Steady As She Goes.” That piece finds Albini putting himself in the role of a rather hive-minded group of males in a satirically-straightforward pursuit of the ultimate night out. “Compliant” finds Weston listing out orders dictated by the narrator’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Next, a mostly instrumental jam (“You Came In Me”) leads into a reprisal of Albini’s character in the opener as he exclaims, “You came in me/ (he came in you?)/ what did you think I was gonna do?/ that’s why I’m fucking with you!” It all ties together nicely in the side’s final track, “Riding Bikes,” a chugging narrative that revisits the notion of pack mentality as Albini reminiscences on adventuring around the neighborhood and causing a mild ruckus in his youth.
While Side A is a loose set of tracks that work together wonderfully, Side B of Dude Incredible is possibly the closest to a concept album that Shellac will ever come. According to a recent interview with Albini, he and Weston had several extensive conversations about the United States’ founding fathers and the full-time occupation that many of them held. As surveyors, these men not only founded the country but also literally mapped out its borders. And that’s the rabbit hole that the band follows in “All The Surveyors,” “Surveyor,” and “Gary.” (The latter is an ode to the adventurer that Gary, Indiana was named after.) Tied together with two tightly wound instrumentals, “The People’s Microphone” and “Mayor/Surveyor,” the sequence of tracks serves as an oddly fantastical reflection on the values — good, bad and shades of grey — that the United States was founded upon.
No Shellac effort has ever felt phoned in, but this time around the trio seems especially focused on creating a cohesive, thematic product. Creating the tight, mathematically inclined rockers that they are particularly amazing at writing — but infusing them with references to some of their more oddball escapades over the years – they’ve created a masterpiece that stands up with the best moments in their catalog. Dude Incredible is, simply put, incredible. Dude.