Mac DeMarco - This Old Dog
Mac DeMarco is a momma’s boy. And somehow, even before hearing his third studio album This Old Dog or learning that his father left when he was just five years old, you could kinda tell. His music, at times raging with the trollish humor of the kid in Mass Media who is too sharp and bored for their own good, has always contained a subtler, more melancholy disposition beneath that cheeky grin. DeMarco is hardly the first indie-rock noodler to poke and prod the meanings of parenthood, especially when the late-twenties bug hits. DeMarco just turned 27, and while we often associate the quarter-life crisis with jobs and romantic relationships, seemingly the only two arrows to pierce the psyche of millennial armor, they both have their roots in the choices of our parents. Growing older means recognizing those parallels, acknowledging the ways we align, reflect, and obscure the paths that brought us into being. As Fleet Foxes singer Robin Pecknold once intoned on the singular “Montezuma”, “so now I am older than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / so what does that say about me?” Demarco doesn’t have the answers either, and he knows it. But with clear eyes and a soft croon, he examines the endless emotional ripples our parents leave us as we sail down life’s restless river.
When your father walks out, all you really have are the photographs. And as you age, the mirror tells another story. Mac glumly admits on album opener “My Old Man” that his father “can’t be me”, a gulf that distance and time tends to accentuate when you fall into adulthood without their guidance. Beginning with stripped down electronic syncopation and a chummy guitar line, it’s a wry take on that subtle realization, all the better for Mac’s snarky resignation. Followed up by standout title track “This Old Dog”, Mac is still wearing his years like the shaggy kid who once released “Ode to Viceroy” in appreciation of his favorite ciggies. While not a concept album per-se, DeMarco wears his love-lorn heart on his sleeve with an unabashed ease and openness that was overshadowed by youthful zeal on previous releases. You can still hear him playing at the frayed edges of indie rock, particularly on the bouncy gaming beat of “Baby You’re Out” and the gentle, rollicking “One Another”, where his penchant for the “BBQ soundtrack” of 2015’s Another One EP really shines through.
These songs would smack of repetition or carelessness if it weren’t for Demarco’s ease with a tune, or the heightened sense of zen-like simplicity to his lyrics. Songs like “Chamber of Reflection”, a stand-out from 2014’s Salad Days, indicated a sort of stoner-wisdom that has always swirled around Mac DeMarco, but it feels most genuine and refined over the plaintive lyrics of vulnerable cuts such as “Dreams From Yesterday” or the gentle sketch in “Sister”. There’s no sneering laughter or practical joke, just the quiet realization on “One Another” that “if you’d always kept it straight you’d never learn”. Little gems like these, which shimmer with the warmth of young adulthood, highlight an introspection and awareness that supersede Mac’s typical goofball schtick. Remember, this is the same guy who covered U2’s “Beautiful Day” … naked …with a drumstick up his butt. And yet, across longing romantic numbers such as “Still Beating” and “One More Love Song”, Mac offers his two cents on the inevitable millennial breakup over rich, sumptuous acoustic guitar chords and mellow, pining piano. If there’s one complaint, it might be that the frazzled wig-outs of his earlier records all feel a bit too tamped down. “On the Level” hums along gently without amounting to much, leaving us stranded in the style Mac has regrettably referred to as “jizz jazz”. This is a minor misstep, however, for an album that otherwise plays its hand at synth, piano, and particularly acoustic guitar, with aplomb.
Then, as we so often do, we circle back to Dad. “Moonlight on the River”, with its haunting fixation on the existential truism that “everybody dies”, hints at the deeper impetus behind the record. His father having been recently diagnosed with cancer, Mac hovers over the track spectrally, gnashing guitars and primal screams giving this late-album cut a fevered energy as raw as anything in his catalog. Death can’t undo their distance any more than it can remove the tired lines they both see when they look in the mirror. That’s the reality of “saying goodbye”. Mac calls it “strange, deciding how to feel about it”, and even stranger to write a song in the process. I wrote my father a goodbye letter a few years before he revealed his cancer diagnosis. Mine said “see you in the next life”, Mac’s says “I’d say, see you next time, if I thought there were a next time”. This Old Dog captures the terrible, banal truth of the absentee parent, and the way every aspect of your mid-twenties is bound to it. Its pleasant melodies and loping synthesizer may disguise it as fluffy and trite, but Mac DeMarco confronts emotional truths here that echo far beyond his years. On album closer “Watching Him Fade Away” Mac exorcises this reality, that the last moments of his father’s life are the only moments they have left to communicate, that they “barely know each other”, that his absence would be “sad, but not really different”. He knows that he might not have “the guts to call him up”, and that maybe he should, but then maybe he won’t. The synth churns along in the background, a sad metronome for the ways in which parents fail children, children become adults, and then silence. I listened to This Old Dog with my mother, who largely raised me by herself, this weekend. Somehow, I know Agnes DeMarco would approve.