Mac DeMarco: This Old Dog | Album Review

With This Old Dog, DeMarco invites the listener back into the fold with gusto, and the material connects like a punch to the gut.

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You could argue that Mac DeMarco has made a career for himself through the intimacy he’s developed with his fans more than any other factor. It’s easy to think you know Mac DeMarco. His live sets are littered with inside jokes, he’s liable to play a jangly AC/DC cover at any moment, and he looks like he just climbed out of sleeping bag in a cave. He’s charming, in a goofy, off-kilter, gap-toothed kind of way. He is, by his own admission, a regular guy who likes to sing about regular stuff.

Except, beyond the surface-level shenanigans that have come to define him to many, there have always been hints that there is more to the man than his stage presence. A thin blanket of melancholy rests just over some of his best work, like a layer black ice on a sidewalk that’s invisible and ready to bust your ass if you stumble into it unprepared.

As early as “Cookin’ Up Somethin’ Good” on his breakthrough album 2, DeMarco was singing about a dysfunctional home life, but with a rubbery cheeriness as if he was in “The Brady Bunch”.

“Daddy’s in the basement, cooking up something fine / While Rick’s out on the pavement, flipping it for dimes / If there’s anything redeeming, I haven’t seen it yet / And I’m still up at midnight, chewing nicorette.”

Part of the appeal of 2 was that it felt so intimate – the songs shimmered with a warmth, casualness, and humor that played like you were sprawled on a beaten couch in a close friend’s garage, listening to the guys jam and goof off. But while 2 was an honest record, it was lighthearted, and any discussion of the darker side of DeMarco’s story was left implied.

But with his sophomore release, Salad Days, DeMarco dipped his toes a bit deeper into the muck. The glancing references to personal troubles that appeared on songs like “Freaking Out the Neighborhood” were brought to the forefront of DeMarco’s songwriting.

“Passing Out Pieces” is still DeMarco’s most cinematic song – it’s introduced by a blaring synth and booming bass, shocking in its in-your-face confidence. Only, DeMarco’s lyrics still offered glimpses of deeper anxieties that were displayed in ways that felt more opaque than revelatory.

“What Mom don’t know has taken its toll on me / It’s all I’ve seen that can’t be wiped clean / It’s hard to believe what it’s made of me” is sung powerfully but is ultimately hollow, as whatever issues DeMarco has concealed from his mother are concealed from the listener too – he couldn’t seem to let himself tackle his problems with the same straightforwardness as he did on any one of his many matter-of-fact love songs.

Salad Days and subsequent release Another One were lessened by DeMarco’s failure to fully commit to his darker songs. DeMarco’s playful, loving songs felt more staid and colored with less personality than they once were by comparison. The friendly intimacy that defined 2 and DeMarco as an individual was no longer being captured on record, even as his compositions felt more mature and polished.

But with This Old Dog, DeMarco invites the listener back into the fold with gusto, and the material connects like a punch to the gut. This is Mac DeMarco’s autumnal moonscape, a story told with an honesty that only emerges in the deepest hours of the night.

“Oh no / Looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me,” DeMarco calls on the chorus of introductory track “My Old Man”, which is bruising and unsettling in its bluntness. The song is almost used like a flashback at the beginning of a film, in that its full meaning is indecipherable until put into context by the end. Besides the tonal dissonance of “My Old Man”, much of the front half of the This Old Dog does not seem like a drastic departure from his past work.

It’s still guitar-based songwriting flavored with mystically chintzy synthesizers and jam band rhythms. “This Old Dog”, “Baby You’re Out”, “For the First Time”, “One Another”, and “One More Love Song” look like the love songs that felt like filler on Salad Days and Another One. But where songs like “Treat Her Better” and “No Other Heart” felt anachronistic and inessential, these tracks are foundational in building to the more incisive songs, and the focus on communication in relationships brings the back half of the record, along with “My Old Man” into focus.

“Baby You’re Out”, for example, is a breakup song sung with a smirk, a pat on the back for someone who’s down and out. It sounds like it could be tacked onto the tracklist for either of DeMarco’s prior two releases without notice. But the second verse, unassuming in the vacuum of the song, is a thesis for the record.

“You’ve always felt it hard to voice complaints / But what you voice is what will drive your fate / And though things never really got that bad / Dreams of greener grass will drive you mad.”

The importance DeMarco has bestowed on disclosure in relationships informs the other love songs, which touch on the highs (“Hey man, so now you’ve got it off your chest / Your heart can finally get some rest) and lows (“Never thought some silly songs could ever go and hurt someone / I never meant to sing my tune for anybody else out there but you”).

Yet, the focus DeMarco has placed on the importance of communication to love seems at odds with his occupation with abandonment: his love is unrequited on “Still Beating”, it’s sacrificial on “One Another”, it’s impeded on “For the First Time”, it’s put behind glass on “This Old Dog”, and it’s hopeless on “One More Love Song”. Something is missing.

And so This Old Dog rewards listeners who can appreciate the nuance of the front half of the record with a monumental conclusion. The final four song stretch ranging from “One More Love Song” (the ballad DeMarco was born to write) to “Watching Him Fade Away” is DeMarco’s finest songwriting to date.

This is when the record is truly biting: when DeMarco returns his focus to his relationship with his father, whose presence is felt on every song, even if at times in an indirect manner.

“On the Level” is an exposed nerve, where DeMarco really begins to lose himself for the first time in the pain that corrupts his relationship with his father. In the first verse, he deadpans the repressed emotion his father showed him, and in the second he is unflinching in presenting the bitter anger he has long smothered as a result of that emotional neglect. “Never had a chance / Never had a voice,” is as efficiently as he could possibly capture the conflict of the album – he’s mournful, pained, and resigned.

All of the emotion suppressed in “On the Level” and across the album explodes in “Moonlight On The River”. Where “On the Level” is sung with a clenched jaw and balled fist, “Moonlight” finds DeMarco among the last rays of light at dusk, contemplating the power he now wields in his relationship with his father, graced with the ability to forgive or punish.

When he sings “It’s so strange, deciding, how to feel about it / It’s such strange emotion standing there beside it”, nothing about his tone suggests desperation, but rather a calm and tremendous isolation.

The howling outro, the climax of the album, where demons scream and wail around a droning, insistent guitar riff is the most emotional piece of music DeMarco has ever created. It’s the final, most brash juxtaposition that highlights DeMarco’s inability to communicate his emotions.

“Make an old man proud of you / Forget about the tears,” he sang on “On the Level”. On “Moonlight”, the music does the crying.

There is an almost obsessive focus on the unceasing march of time and the dictatorial power of memory and their relation to happiness and regret on the record. On a slightly smaller scale, This Old Dog is a referendum on the fear that paralyzes, that fear one only experiences when forced to choose between the awful familiar and the foreboding unknown.

“Haven’t got the guts to call him up / Walk around as if you never cared in the first place / But if you never call you’ll end up stuck,” he sings on “Watching Him Fade Away”. DeMarco has never been so clear-eyed in his self-reflection, and that it comes on such a heavy topic as this is nothing short of stunning.

“The thought of him no longer being around / Well sure it would be sad / But not really different / And even though we barely know each other / It still hurts / Watching him fade away,” he murmurs. As the song, and the album, fades, DeMarco is revealed as a tragic character – after forty-two soul-searching minutes, he remains paralyzed, no closer to bridging the gap between himself and his father yet no less affected by the distance.

And when casting about for any answer This Old Man offers, a song that floats between the relationship anxiety exploration that is the first half of the record and the reflection on the source of those anxieties on the second remains vital.

DeMarco is as cold as he’s ever been on the chorus of “Dreams from Yesterday”, when he sings, “So why then, are you crying? / It was you who denied them / And no amount of tears could roll back all the years / Bring back all your dreams from yesterday”. It’s left unclear if DeMarco is singing to his father or himself, or if it ultimately makes a difference either way.

“Looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me.”

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