“I’m not old, I’m a kid. If I feel old now, I don’t know how the hell I’m going to feel when I’m really old ... that will be strange.”
—Mac DeMarco (Billboard, 3 May 2017)
There are some that can’t handle Mac DeMarco’s antics. From dressing up full-hick for his Coachella interview (which was doubly funny given he’s an Edmonton native) to his live concerts known for having auto-dealership tube men and various states of undress, DeMarco’s friendly, party-loving image is one that seems to imply that he doesn’t take his gig seriously, that his outside persona should be just as disposable as the music he creates.
And you know what? That’s fine. DeMarco cuts some people the wrong way, and there will forever be a line of clown princes dancing about in the great halls of rock ‘n’ roll—DeMarco may just so happen to be wearing the jester hat this time around.
Yet for all his nuttiness, DeMarco’s most radical poses are the ones that stem from his music. While it was often easy to write him off as penning lo-fi, mid-tempo, bong-rip jam sessions, such casual tossed-off observations belie DeMarco’s clear influences, the largest of which is the Grateful Dead. DeMarco is a proud Garcia acolyte, and his songs sometimes loam about, at times jump up, are often filled with joy, and now, with the more acoustic and formal new set This Old Dog toss a bit of the Dead’s country influences in for good measure.
That’s not to say that This Old Dog is a country album, but it is astoundingly undecorated. Over simple drum beats and unfussy keyboards, DeMarco strums his heart out, singing primarily about his dad but soon realizing he can’t sing about his father without singing about himself in tandem. On album opener “This Old Man”, DeMarco sets the stage perfectly:
Look in the mirror
Who do you see?
But surely not me
Identity and family are key themes here, all wrapped up in a set of 13 songs that barely pass the 40-minute mark. Sparing the extended reverb freakout on the seven-minute “Moonlight on the River”, This Old Dog breaks from his gloriously slipshod breakthrough Salad Days by stripping all his production tricks away and keeping the songs front and center. While he mixes up the colors from time to time (dig that Club Med samba vibe on “Dreams from Yesterday”), DeMarco here is still playing the casual everyman. The chorus to “For the First Time” is just DeMarco repeating the line “It’s just like seeing her / For the first time / Again” over and over, but that sparse bass and casual ‘70s keyboard give depth to DeMarco’s casual musings, romantic without being blatant, DeMarco’s delivery meek but accessible throughout.
Heck, even on album closer “Watching Him Fade Away”, with its deteriorating-before-your-ears synth taps, DeMarco keep his voice on an even lilt, never giving in to overt sentiment but letting his plain voice do a lot of the heavy lifting, as if this was the entirety of his emotional range, speak-singing the line “And even though we barely know each other / It still hurts watching him fade away”. Even with a few wise-beyond-his-year couplets before, the emotional intimacy he achieves on This Old Dog is a remarkable leap for DeMarco as a songwriter, proving that by stripping his sound down to its core elements, he can still pack a punch even in the most unassuming of setups.
Even with the blessing of clarity and structure to his work, fans of DeMarco will still recognize all the sonic trick he pulls here. His trademark unfiltered electric guitar sound dominates the album, but here adding flavor and texture, unlike on his earlier works and one-off BBQ soundtracks where sometimes it felt like the guitar was serving double-duty as a bandleader. Undoubtedly, despite some smoke-bubble-by-the-pool deep vibe tracks like “One More Love Song” still reminding people that the old DeMarco hasn’t gone anywhere, This Old Dog is the work of a genuine pop formalist, someone enraptured with the very idea of songwriting who decided to give himself a challenge by making the most straightforward LP of his career.
Don’t let its modest exterior fool you: DeMarco’s latest has a rich emotional life that will reveal itself over time. This Old Dog indeed has some new tricks in it.