Review | Mac Demarco is melodic and lonely on This Old Dog

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Mac Demarco 

This Old Dog

[Captured Tracks]

Whacky Macky has distilled l’eau Demarco down to quite a marketable product at this point. Fans know and love the antics-prone agent of trippy soft rock, but the boy wonder is hungover and left meandering over multiple issues in his personal life on ‘This Old Dog’. Gone are the watery splish-splash of chorus-soaked guitars and esoteric laughs of previous records in favour of steady, clean, and wistful tunes with introspective words. Ponderous synths and old-school drum machines are the tools marking a refined sound with an evidently seasoned songwriter behind them.

The rhythms are tight and the melodies, vocal and otherwise, always seem to know just where the right note is and when to appear. You can hear how much Mac enjoys the craft and process of putting each house-of-cards together, especially with a philosophy of minimalism where there’s no sonic wilderness to hide in. But the song-writing isn’t the problem here – it never has been with Mac – it’s the lack of scope. ‘This Old Dog’ is a wholly inoffensive listen; it’s got placid lake dad rock with all the jangly guitars and talk-sing ramblings that breeze by the ear. Side one lacks character compared with the latter, and the weariness of the ambience can lead the whole product to seem a little indistinct at times. For the casual fan, this album might be a turn-off given the lack of humour, but for anyone curious to see a new frontier, it’s bound to appeal.

If there’s one word that grasps the essence of LP number three, it’s sobering. The words and overtones don’t beat around any bushes with some melancholic realities that have caught up with him. The heavy musings on his father sandwich either side of the album, and Mac questions himself in the mirror about turning into dad the older he gets, “Oh no, looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me.” Years trotting off around la-la land like his estranged dad have left a bill for the blissful ignorance of it all: “Look how old and cold and tired and lonely he’s become, not until you see, there’s a price tag hanging off of having all that fun.”

Mac senior is an addict who is gravely ill, and Mac junior illuminates the crossroads he’s been at with complex feelings lurking around: “The thought of him no longer being around, well sure it would be sad but not really different.” In an interview, Mac chewed him out as “kind of a piece of shit”, but seems reluctant to totally condemn him in song. Album closer ‘Watching him Fade Away’ is telling: “Even though we barely know each other, it still hurts watching him fade away.” The track is exemplary of Mac’s ability to endear with the simplest of arrangements and words; it’s painful to listen to in its honesty and weakness. Kids tunes for big boys and girls, but by God, can they hit home when they’re on the money.

Things get existential on ‘Moonlight on the River’, where Canada’s chirpy goofball bares it tenderly and rough over mortality and isolation before descending into a Velvet Underground-esque noise quagmire. Rocky relationships and the death of youthful idealism plague elsewhere: “Simply being alive’s been rough”, on ‘For the First Time’, and “No amount of tears, could roll back all the years, and bring back all your dreams from yesterday,” on ‘Dreams from Yesterday’.

For better or worse, Mac just sounds tired and worn out. On the one hand, you have what is by far his least energetic recording yet – a testament to the woes and reflections that the lyrics espouse – but on the other, some interesting questions pop up for those who’ve been trailing the Demarco cult the last few years. A lot of the buzz and hype around Mac’s character is his extremely likable personality; he’s an awfully charming clown after all. Mac sounding lost here makes you wonder if his goofing around is hiding something, number one suspect being his crisis with his dad. His recent Guardian interview, where he explicitly said, “I’m trying not to turn into my father”, would certainly suggest so. But stepping away from the armchair psychology, it can at least be said that melancholy-on-tape á la Mac makes for solid after-hours listening and an encouraging sign of genuine growth as a musician.

SEVEN OUT OF TEN

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Barra Ó Súilleabháin

Barra Ó Súilleabháin is a science writer at Research2Reality and contributes to outlets such as The Media Editor and Button Masher Magazine. If he's not serenading his bedroom with his Spanish guitar, he can be found most evenings buried in his Nintendo with Flying Lotus as the soundtrack.