It’d be a shame if everyone treated Here Comes the Cowboy as the last stand of early 2010s slacker indie against the genre’s more principled and inclusive new wave, because Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy is a thorny, frightening, often frustrating record about the passage of time. It’s something he’s been chronicling in real time since he first let loose the words “what mom don’t know has taken its toll on me” on his 2014 record Salad Days. The Rockaway Beach ruminations of Another One and the existential horns and thorns of This Old Dog paint a picture of a rock-star hedonist acutely aware of the toll of the touring life and not entirely willing to give it up. Cowboy‘s eerie calm reflects the domestic quietness every adolescent party animal fears stumbling into when they get older.
Per DeMarco, “cowboy” is a term of endearment he likes to use for his friends, an admission that drew some derisive laughs in the wake of the “yee-haw agenda’s” subversion of the all-American white-male cowboy ideal. I think it’s a red herring: the cowboy is the unseen force at his back, keeping him on his linear path through life—not necessarily his conscience, but something in that wheelhouse. He refers to himself as “little doggy”, like how cowboys refer to cattle in cheesy old songs, on two separate songs. On “Little Dogs March” he’s telling himself to “march on”, and at the end, the cowboy finally arrives in an unsettling dust-storm of “yee-haws”, as if to tell him it’s time to stop fucking around on the guitar and do something else.
Here Comes the Cowboy is full of dead friends, departed lovers and disappearing yesterdays. Only “Baby Bye Bye” expresses any kind of elation, as he sighs with relief after shedding a toxic lover. DeMarco is an admitted alcoholic, and Cowboy is true to the addict mindset that having something in your life that fucks it up is preferable to having nothing in your life to give it meaning. DeMarco doesn’t give himself many options for the future besides vague talk of moving to the country or flying to Spain. The album squirms with existential restlessness and the of its most affecting moments come at the end of the Masonic abstraction “On the Square”, when DeMarco stabs idly at a high piano note just to have something—anything—to do.
Early in his career, DeMarco could be read as a sort of indie analog to a young John Lennon, expressing deep-seated anxieties and universal truths with two-minute pop songs and simple, idiomatic language. What’s here is closer to what we’d expect from an R. Stevie Moore or a Robert Pollard. The title track opens with him portentously repeating “here comes the cowboy” for three minutes (longer than many of his best songs) over a simulacrum of the Jaws theme. “Choo Choo” is even more bizarre, repeating a metaphorical come-on most famously associated with an episode of the Simpsons. It’s easy to read these as simple trolls. I think they’re sighs of relief. The indie rock industry courts good reviews the way the pop industry courts hits, so it’s kind of elating to hear DeMarco write songs that he knows critics will hate, or at least squabble over, but are fundamentally harmless.
DeMarco, alas, may be better known for his overwhelming personality than for his music. He’s got a perverse sort of star power, but his music is so subtle and understated it tends to float away in the DeMarco media circus. His early celebrations of his own grottiness, surrounding himself with an iconographic language written in cheap pizza and cigarettes, serve as an easy inspiration for men who’d rather turn their shortcomings into an aesthetic than confront them. Along with Tame Impala, he’s the stereotypical favorite artist of shitty slacker guys. But if you come away from his music with an image of a self-mythologizing bad boy, you’re not paying attention.