It’s no secret that subcultures routinely form around specific genres or artists within popular music, typically those that appeal to some sort of heterodox niche and provide a sense of belonging for a group of people who may otherwise feel somewhat marginalised or excluded from broader society and its norms and values. As for modern examples of this sociological phenomenon, Mac DeMarco and his influence stand as a rather interesting case. Whereas some of the most well-known subcultural icons from within the music world are recognised for both their image and their sound, none of DeMarco’s material thus far in his career has stood out as being uniquely his in style. Although the Canadian singer-songwriter can unequivocally be attributed his mellow, chain-smoking, slacker persona, from which a subset of hipsters seems to have been birthed, his equally laid-back approach towards crafting jangly indie rock tunes differs little in principle or execution from that of many of the musician’s contemporaries that work within the same circuits. Indeed, although a controversial opinion, given the artist’s loyal following and respectable critical reception, I can’t say that I have often found much to Mac DeMarco’s music beyond his goofy and undeniably amiable persona. As much I have at least been able to appreciate the singer’s magnetism, when it comes to his two previous studio albums, 2 and particularly Salad Days, the excessively smooth tone of the instrumentation, DeMarco’s languid vocal delivery and desultory commentary on suburban life, and the prioritisation of evoking a nonchalant attitude over compelling compositional chops came across as relaxed to the point of being barely conscious. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an exceptionally sleepy approach to rock music on paper, but when the end product actually puts the listener to sleep, it’s perhaps best to go back to the drawing board. As it happens, on DeMarco’s latest album, This Old Dog, whilst the musician has by no means thrown out the fundamentals of his approach to writing mellow mood music, it seems as if he has nonetheless tweaked his songwriting formula, as to come through with a much-needed dose of diversity, both structurally and stylistically, as well as some endearing lyricism that matches the charm of DeMarco’s character. Undoubtedly, many of my previous reservations for the artist’s scant stylings on his past output carry onto this newest album, but in a markedly more limited quantity and in a way that typically pertains to individual tracks, rather than the entirety of the record. This Old Dog may not allude to a complete songwriting revelation for DeMarco, but it certainly hints towards a heightened sense of maturity and focus that makes for some particularly captivating moments.
Oddly enough, the smattering of synth embellishments and pattering drum machines that often hold down the fort on This Old Dog, compared to the overbearing jangle pop tint of 2 and Salad Days, make for an album that is, in some ways, even more mellow than DeMarco’s previous two full-lengths, whilst also being rewardingly brighter and more vibrant. It seems as if the approach applied to arranging the instrumentation on This Old Dog is similarly minimal to DeMarco’s pre-established style, but allows room for more interesting textures that nevertheless don’t overpower a song or strip it of its easygoing appeal. The album’s very first breaths on the song My Old Man see a dainty synth ostinato and a subtle, rattling of percussion establish this new approach, before DeMarco’s sunny acoustic guitar strumming takes the helm to support one of the singer’s most plaintive lyrical ruminations to date, as he begins to see himself becoming more and more like his addict father who abandoned him as a child. Indeed, it’s during his more introspective moments, which are a lot more plentiful on This Old Dog compared to his previous material, wherein the sparse taps of percussion and slick synth melodies provide a pleasing aesthetic framing for DeMarco’s moving meditations on everything from the melancholic to the mundane. The final cut in the tracklisting, Watching Him Fade Away, which also concerns DeMarco’s unsettled relationship with his dad, is similarly cogent, with the subtle squelches of synth nicely accentuating the fragility of the artist’s inflection, as he translates his internal conflict concerning whether or not he should speak to his father and seek closure since hearing of his diagnosis of cancer. When comparing the songs to feature these sorts of scarce arrangements with the bouncy, funk-tinged synth chords of Baby You’re Out, the glistening, saccharine synth-driven balladry of For the First Time, or the intertwining harmonica and electric guitar tinkering of A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes, which reads like a dozy Bob Dylan or Jackson Browne song, This Old Dog proves that it can make more of DeMarco’s light and sparing instrumental arrangements than its predecessors did.
Whilst it’s certainly true that This Old Dog is DeMarco’s most polished and well-rounded record on the surface, like his past two LPs, there nonetheless seems to be a lack of depth below the surface, and this applies to both the music and the lyrics. Perhaps my biggest gripe with both 2 and Salad Days is that they read to me as being more focussed on crafting some sleepy sonic wallpaper than pursuing some truly satisfying and substantial songwriting. This is surely less pronounced of a problem on This Old Dog, but many of these songs still seem to be missing the follow-through to make them as compelling as they could be. Practically the same could be said of the lyrics from the album, in that, whilst they are undoubtedly DeMarco’s most endearing, courtesy of his increased willingness to utilise a more personal and communicative approach that effectively complements his somewhat scattered indie rock stylings, the subtext to his candid contemplations is typically rather bare, with this, once again, pointing towards a lack of depth that could really strengthen the singer’s charming sincerity. Despite its strong lead melody and pretty instrumental swells, the title track doesn’t stand out as being a well-suited platform for these nice motifs, as the song’s predictable rhyming couplets and generally elementary, and borderline underwritten, structure come dangerously close to being inconspicuous enough as to fade into the background. Even songs that stand out as being rather strong sonically speaking, thanks to their well-integrated instrumentation, particularly Dreams from Yesterday and the aforementioned A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes, suffer from some wanting structures that either don’t match the cuts’ arrangements with some equally effective structural variation, or they can simply peter out without much in the way of a gratifying climax or conclusion. Even when reading into the lyrics of tracks like My Old Man and Watching Him Fade Away, in which DeMarco’s honesty with both the listener and himself is incredibly admirable and engaging, these songs’ sparse subtexts don’t live up to the emotional weight of their overarching themes, thus not providing them with the expressive urgency that could make them exceptionally astute observations on fractured familial relations. Indeed, This Old Dog is most definitely a tidier album on the surface, but DeMarco, as has been the case with past material, doesn’t match the captivating appearance of his hushed indie stylings with a sufficient amount of depth to completely bring to fruition the insightful poignancy many of his songs could achieve.
Generally speaking, the reasons to recognise This Old Dog as DeMarco’s most mature album thus far in his career are abounding. The artist’s less-is-more philosophy towards arranging the instrumentation to his delicate, jangly rock tunes is more successfully actualised than ever before, just as his abrupt lyrical left-turn towards some strikingly gloomier subject matter pays off by securing some of his most impassioned and emotionally potent reflections to date. Of course, as encouraging as all of this is for the future of DeMarco’s artistry, a handful of the musician’s songwriting fundamentals leave a little to be desired, and it would seem that his stoner-friendly psychedelia shows a lot more room for structural growth outside of its superficial points of appeal. This Old Dog, therefore, may not have completely set DeMarco apart from his contemporaries and established a definitive musical identity for the singer-songwriter that is as characteristic as his gap-toothed smile, but it is certainly a commendable step in the right direction.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10