DeMarco seems to be vying not only to be his generation’s Paul Simon, but also his generation’s Donald Fagen.
Since his extraordinary, seemingly out-of-nowhere rise, Mac DeMarco is apparently happy being indie rock’s jester, wearing his talent lightly, with a wide, gap-toothed grin. But he has traded in some of his quirkiness for panache, being unafraid to demonstrate that he is just as much a pop sophisticate as he is irreverent. On This Old Dog, released in 2017, Mac took a turn toward the sensitive, giving a glimpse of himself as his generation’s Paul Simon. But he has also shown an eagerness to geek out on studio slickery, and so he seems to be vying not only to be his generation’s Paul Simon, but also his generation’s Donald Fagen (or Haruomi Hosono).
The risk, of course, is sounding too slick, too soft rock, yacht rock or what-have-you. But on his latest, Here Comes the Cowboy, he adopts enough of the conventions of a restrained genre (broadly speaking, folk/country) that any penchant he might have for the cheesy is mostly reined in. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of those “dead” drum sounds to go around!
As on his previous effort, the tasteful simplicity of his lyrics and the care he seems to give to his singing delivery (his vocals keep getting better and better) make for a comforting and engaging listen. What’s more, he’s found a way to confidently channel his influences while managing to write songs that they would have been happy to sing, such as the Harry Nilsson-influenced “Finally Alone,” at times whimsical and melancholy, or the White Album-esque “Hey Cowgirl.” But has Mac gotten…a little too comfortable and confident?
Arguably, yes. The album feels so effortlessly artful and artfully effortless that one starts to get suspicious. How can it be so easy, one wonders? It is as though a record store manager who also happened to be a great performer wrote an album. This is the sound of someone whose talent risks getting in his way. Some of the songs, however spot-on, just don’t need to be there, such as “Choo Choo” and the closer “Baby Bye Bye.” Maybe Mac is just having fun, but he’s been doing that all along, and on these songs, he seems to be having more fun than the listener. Even the opening title track falls short of achieving the hypnotic effect it seems to pursue.
But let’s not forget who we’re dealing with—someone who can write a heck of a song when he wants to. And so, we get plenty of high moments, the delicate, introspective “Nobody,” which rides along at just the right pace, the refreshingly vulnerable “K” and the dreamy and delicately jazzy “Skyless Moon.” Songs like these make you glad Here Comes the Cowboy is in the world.
And the whole thing is a fun listen. It’s just that a few of the songs have similar tempos and end up sounding like stylistic exercises. “But what do you think, Mr. DeMarco?” you want to ask. He’s a master of many styles, but sometimes he inhabits them a little too cozily; the man has made coziness into a form of virtuosity. But how cozy is too cozy? Here Comes the Cowboy doesn’t answer the question, but it does raise it, and so it is a sort of warning sign. But as “warning signs” go, it’s a good listen from one of the most likable, talented guys around.