Premature Evaluation: Mac DeMarco This Old Dog
In which an old dog learns new tricks. Not that you’d mistake this album for the work of anyone but Mac DeMarco, or that “indie rock’s loveable laid-back prince,” who turned 27 Sunday, is old by most metrics. But This Old Dog, either his third or fifth album depending on how you want to classify mini-LPs Rock And Roll Night Club and Another One, really does present something like a mature version of the DeMarco — surprising for a guy whose “onstage antics have spanned from hoisting his longtime girlfriend Kiera onto his shoulders mid-song to performing a U2 cover nude with a drumstick up his butt,” as a new Pitchfork feature explains it. Both in terms of sound and subject matter, the album finds DeMarco beginning to venture beyond the music he built his carefree indie bro reputation on. And it may be an antidote for his goofball exploits if, like me, you often find that stuff obscuring his formidable songwriting talent.
We need not run down the long connection between comedians and depression — “But doctor… I am Pagliacci” and all that. So even if you weren’t familiar with DeMarco’s complicated family history — specifically his strained relationship with his absentee father, discussed in various interviews over the years — you could probably ascertain that his class clown persona masked some deep emotional wounds. Still, it’s shocking to hear him admit on “Still Beating,” against the sort of noodly soft-rock guitar lope that has become his trademark, “Honey, I cry too/ You better believe it.” In the official bio distributed along with This Old Dog, DeMarco states, “One of the main goals for this record was trying to make sure I retained some kind of realness,” which apparently means facing his dark side head-on.
That makes it the riskiest album of his young career because a dark Mac DeMarco album seems like a contradiction in terms. Over the past half-decade, he’s cornered the market on a unique and apparently irresistible niche between the casual roots rock of Parrothead patron saint Jimmy Buffett and chillwave, the zoned-out lo-fi subgenre that was all the rage around the time his label Captured Tracks was getting off the ground. It’s no coincidence that he threw a BBQ listening party for each of his last two releases; his is music for kicking back and baking away in the sun. In fact, the first time I ever personally connected with DeMarco’s music was at a cookout. I’d mostly viewed him as a persistent annoyance after being put off by his wacky behavior at some SXSW gig years ago, but hearing “Chamber Of Reflection” echoing across a parking lot while people ate, drank, and played sports was a revelation. I had no choice but to acknowledge he’s great at what he does.
But is what he does adaptable beyond its initial feel-good function? What happens when a guy whose music has always been about catching some relaxing vibes decides to face his demons? Fortunately, rather than creative crossed wires, the result is the richest collection of songs in DeMarco’s discography. This Old Dog finds the gray area between his music’s usual easygoing demeanor and the downcast self-reflection that inevitably follows any attempt at hedonistic numbing. Sonically, that’s accomplished by a switch to acoustic guitar and expanded use of keyboards and drum machines, though ultimately the musical fabric feels as familiar as DeMarco’s weathered croon. What really stands out is the openhearted nature of his lyrics.
“My dad peaced out pretty early on,” DeMarco told Red Bull a few years back. “He was one of those ‘Christmas Dads’ who just pops in on the holidays.” In another Pitchfork profile, DeMarco’s mother once described his father as “an alcoholic and an addict” and wondered, “What do you say to a father who you know chose alcohol and drugs over you?” Watching father and son interact about five minutes into this Burger documentary suggests relations remained strained into DeMarco’s adulthood. So it’s decidedly not-chill when, on album opener “My Old Man,” he confesses, “Oh no, looks like I’m seein’ more of my old man in me.”
His father also appears to be the subject of album closer “Watching Him Fade Away.” Over nothing but a woozy keyboard vamp, DeMarco argues with himself, “Haven’t got the guts to call him up/ Walk around as if you never cared in the first place/ But if you never call, you’ll end up stuck/ Without another chance to tell him off right to his face.” Then comes the rawest moment on the record: “And even though you barely know each other/ It still hurts watching him fade way.” It’s brutally affecting in a way I never knew DeMarco was capable of. Like that moment with Salad Days at the cookout, it makes me want to reassess his whole discography, this time going back and identifying all the heartache buried beneath his laid-back exterior.
There’s much more contemplation in between those two odes to paternal estrangement, though it’s not always clear whether DeMarco is addressing himself or someone else. “And no amount of tears could roll back all the years/ And bring back all your dreams from yesterday,” he sings on the McCartney-esque “Dreams From Yesterday.” On “Sister,” he remarks, “Turns out not every dog has its day” before empathizing, “Wish there were more that I could do/ Any time you’re hearing this/ Sister, know my heart goes out to you.” Picking up the thread from Salad Days highlight “Let Her Go,” he counsels a friend through a breakup on “One Another” with one eminently quotable line after another. (My favorite: “Hey man, so now you’ve got it off your chest/ Your heart can finally get some rest/ Same heart that started this whole mess.”) And then there’s “On The Level,” a sonic sequel of sorts to “Chamber Of Reflection” on which the DeMarco seems to wrestle with his own responsibility to deal with the problems inflicted by his dad: “Carrying a name/ Fall until my final day/ Now who’s there left to blame?”
So not only does DeMarco’s soft-focus millennial easy listening palette translate beautifully to heavier subjects, the switch also reveals him to be one of the most concise, effective lyricists working today. As with his music, DeMarco’s wordplay is deceptively simple, building a distinct and unmistakable dialect out of common bits and pieces. It’s something I never appreciated until he started baring his soul. Before DeMarco turned the spotlight on his own struggles, it was easy to tune out his words and get lost in the music or to let his zany persona drown out his songs entirely. By shading in so much of DeMarco’s background, This Old Dog renders him a more relatable songwriter, one capable of connecting on an emotional level without giving up his ceaseless pursuit of tranquility. Turns out there’s a human being behind that wagging tongue after all.