Rating:Everybody loves a clown, or so what we’re told. At the very least, music critics do; in the relatively short history of rock ‘n’ roll, there seems to be a special place reserved for the goofballs. From the speed-fuelled dark humor of early Bob Dylan to the mumbling slacker poetry of “Loser”-era Beck, there’s always a dude with a guitar and messy hair out there to make music look like a bit of a larf. Mac DeMarco may be the next anointed one, given the press he’s received for his raucous, Limp Bizkit-covering shows and tendency for public nudity. His newest record Salad Days doesn’t deny that he plays things pretty loose, but there’s an increasing professionalism to his music that undercuts it just a bit.
2012’s 2 showed DeMarco easing into more of a singer-songwriter mode after his solo debut with Rock and Roll Nightclub, and Salad Days shows no sign of slowing that down. While his earlier work has could be labeled as a kind of third-generation glam, both 2 and Salad Days have moved in a more straightforward rock direction. In fact, acoustic guitars show up as much as electric on Salad Days, and the majority of the tracks deal with that most venerable of pop music subjects, how go get along better with girls. If anything, it hearkens to one of DeMarco’s stated influences: Jonathan Richman. While he doesn’t have the childlike tones of his idol (an ode to Viceroy cigarettes negated any chance of that), the sheer sincerity of DeMarco’s songwriting puts him in the same arena as the less brittle edges of the Modern Lovers.
At the very least, Salad Days confirms DeMarco’s gifts for winning melody. The opening title track sounds winsome and tumbling, but the breeziness of the guitar and the singer’s narcotized voice don’t offset its melancholy tone. From the beginning of the album, there’s a reminder that Salad days are gone, missing hippy Jon/ Remembering things just to tell ‘em so long.” It’s not that it’s a depressive album, but there is a pervasive sense of dejection through Salad Days that walks a fine balance against its ramshackle attitude. Tracks like “Let Her Go” (not a Zombies cover) and “Treat Her Better” continue on in much the same mode, with DeMarco’s laidback voice playing against a sense of increasing maturity, even if the takeaway is “don’t act like a jerk to the person you care for.”
If Salad Days has a fault, it’s that it doesn’t have a lot of range. Although the closing track “Jonny’s Odyssey” pushes things forward into sparer, more atmospheric territory, the 11 tracks on the album tend to retread the same ground as 2. Given his persona as a slacker-songwriter, complete with sloppy guitars and laconic vocals, it’s a bit paradoxical that he’s growing increasingly professional with that approach. But there’s nothing wrong with a musician refining their territory before moving on…just as long as they eventually do move on.