Ten years ago, Mac DeMarco struck flint on a corner of the burgeoning bedroom pop movement with a lazy river of effortless tunes and guitar figures linked to the opulent breeze of 1970s gold sounds. Since then, as his records have transitioned toward clearer production and slower tempos, the hashish haziness drifting over his music has subtly shifted earthward. It’s as if the affable stoner now sits quietly in the corner, bereft of social energy and caught up in layers of thought. What is this quiet desperation that This Old Dog touched on and Here Comes the Cowboy felt consumed by? Call it a post-party listlessness, or the foggy brain smudge that remains in the absence of stimulation, but its response is the same: a signal to slip the shoes on and wearily meet the cold sunlight.
Recorded over four months via a portable recording setup, Five Easy Hot Dogs is essentially Mac DeMarco in lowercase letters. You hear his atonal rasp count to four and then it’s gone for the rest of its 35 minutes. Each instrumental, named after its place of origin, floats by languorously and begins to blur together into a gentle, placid paste not even three songs in. Each track is gorgeous, but they’re all also immeasurably passive, with only a few key differences between each to make them separate entities. For the heir apparent of easy listening, perhaps that placidity makes Five Easy Hot Dogs DeMarco’s most successful record yet, but from a musical standpoint it’s certainly nowhere near as engaging as the creative pop melodies that once lifted his earlier work.
That’s assuming, of course, that he’s even going for pop here. Every track, from the fingerpicked “Portland 2” to the chiming “Victoria” to the waltz of “Vancouver 2”, loops its melodic figures over and over like they were backing tracks for more engaged musicians. The mortar holding these bricks in place comes mostly in the form of mood, on top of some recognizable, repeated elements. Some, like the comforting clack of wood blocks or the gentle patter of bongos, are familiar to DeMarco’s general palette. Others, like the blatant plunder of Yasunori Mitsuda’s Chrono Trigger soundtrack in “Gualala 2” and “Portland 2”, are specific to this project. Otherwise, there’s little about Five Easy Hot Dogs that expands on DeMarco as an artist, just recitations of the soft sounds that catapulted him to indie stardom.
It’s dangerous, of course, to fall into the habit of assuming every musician wants to change the world with their art. Some simply want to make music free of their intellectual sides, and that can be as virtuous an endeavor as anything. Mac DeMarco decided one day that he wanted to make a record on the road, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. What feels odd, and weirdly disquieting, is how the nomadic soul that laid down these instrumental parts feels miles separated from the man who once lifted his girlfriend on his shoulders in a show of triumph, who willingly gave out his address at the end of an EP.
If anything punctures this record’s thick cloud of tranquility, it’s the unnerving notion that so little of Mac seems to exist on this record, and that not just because it doesn’t bear his voice. It’s an act that feels purposeful, like some endeavor for a healthier life. On a drive from New York to Salt Lake City near the end of the recording process, DeMarco finally decided to quit smoking. Not only is that one of the hardest things for a human to consciously accomplish, but it’s also a clear relinquishing of a trademark aspect of his once-relevant persona. Such an act feels impossibly symbolic, especially in the context of this album. For someone who once vocalized the perils of giving yourself away, it truly feels like he has nothing left of himself he wants to give.