A great pop record that’s just a little sadder and world-wearier than what’s come before.
Mac DeMarco likes to party—that’s a fact nearly as well-known as his music. But through his music, all he can really think about is what all that hedonism might do to him. His debut LP, 2, featured an ode to cigarettes with the refrain “I’ll smoke you ’til I’m dying.” One of the most quoted lyrics from sophomore album, Salad Days, was “What mom don’t know is taking its toll on me.” On his latest This Old Dog, he rephrases it, just barely: “There’s a price tag hanging off of having all that fun.”
It’s known DeMarco’s father abandoned his family to disappear into booze and drugs. This Old Dog’s opening “My Old Man” confirms what fans might have long guessed: DeMarco’s worried about turning into his dad. When he looks in the mirror and sees more of his old man in him, we know he’s not just talking about the lines on his face. “On the Level” is structured as an entreaty from a father for his son to “make an old man proud,” which is awfully ominous given the family history, and even without that knowledge, there’s still those creepy, bent synthesizers.
Family, and DeMarco’s increased distance from it, is a major concern of This Old Dog. When he returns to his childhood home on “Moonlight on the River,” he describes it in the sort of nostalgic language that tells us he doesn’t visit much; the song ends with a barrage of feral noises, as if the landscape has become unfamiliar. The album ends with “Watching Him Fade Away,” in which the Canadian singer-songwriter admits the only reason he’d want to talk to his dad is to tell him off—the only connection they could still have. It’s the most wrenching thing DeMarco’s ever written.
Many recently acclaimed albums have been rooted in well-publicized personal tragedy. Blackstar. You Want It Darker. Carrie & Lowell. A Crow Looked At Me. Skeleton Tree. These are records that trap the listener in a room with the artists’ grievances. This Old Dog doesn’t work like that. If you didn’t know the backstory, you might be able to guess something was wrong and that DeMarco was thinking about his own aging and mortality more than before. But This Old Dog isn’t a tearjerker. The feeling it imparts is a more general melancholy about the transitory nature of time. The laconic DeMarco, who’s shrugged off the record as being about “my family and my life right now and the way I’m feeling and stuff,” probably prefers it that way.
DeMarco’s favorite album of all time is John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and like Lennon’s, his songwriting is good-naturedly vague. He rarely employs a word longer than two syllables. He shies away from the hyper-specific references that define the songwriting style dominant now in most genres. He loves a good idiom, and his constant use of old-fashioned phrases like “my old man” and “wake up, sleepyhead” puts just a little bit of extra distance between himself and the audience. They’re frills, albeit tasteful ones, and they trick us into seeing his songs as artifice when they in fact express deep and sometimes painful sentiment. It’s an approach that rewards repeat listening. He doesn’t blindside us with truth but lets us find it for ourselves.
He’s also kin to Lennon in his efficiency. One of the most astonishing things about the Beatles is how much they could squeeze into under three minutes—the standard of the day, which allotted less fat than today’s three-and-a-half. DeMarco, likewise, isn’t one to heap on the bells and whistles. Most of the songs here run about three minutes, and the only reason the album isn’t under 40 is because of the zoo he unleashes on “Moonlight on the River.” And if he isn’t terribly gifted at choruses, he sure knows how to write a riff: “Baby You’re Out” and the almost “Stir It Up”-like “One Another” are insidious earworms.
Here, his dopey melodies are enhanced by more synths than before, their warped sounds harkening back to Salad Days standout “Chamber of Reflection.” He has fun with an old Roland CR-78 drum machine, which he doesn’t just set to pitter-patter but milks for its lo-fi quirks. “Baby You’re Out” is particularly delightful in how a sort of tinny synthesized pop adds carbonation to the otherwise conventional acoustic-guitar landscape. His distinctive electric guitar tone—sort of like Vini Reilly soaked in vegetable oil—is largely absent here. But in the interim between records, he seems to have spent his wads of touring money on new toys.
Does all of this distract from the pathos of the record? No, because he’s not necessarily going for pathos. Making sad music comes naturally to any musician who’s thinking sad thoughts, and as powerful as some of these songs are, it doesn’t seem like DeMarco’s going out of his way to make a stark statement of personal anguish. He doesn’t let his pain elevate his art into the realm of capital-A Art. He’s just making a Mac DeMarco album within his present mindset, so we end up with a great pop record that’s just a little sadder and world-wearier than what’s come before.