The first time I ever listened to Mac DeMarco was during the summer of 2015, just after he released his mini-LP “Another One” and just before I started my first year of college. I first listened to the titular track, “Another One,” as well as a few songs here and there from his 2014 album “Salad Days,” but could not find myself really getting into any of it.
None of his music had the gripping catchiness of the pop-rock music I had always been attracted to, such as from The Beatles and Weezer, so I ignorantly dubbed him as a John Lennon-sounding wannabe and pushed his music away from my sights. It wasn’t until revisiting his work halfway through my freshman year of college after I had grown up a bit when I finally began to recognize DeMarco’s pristine ability to encapsulate the post-teenage, early adulthood experience in his own vibrant and “jangly” way.
Still, his recent full-length, “This Old Dog,” was underwhelming upon first listen. There were a few tracks that caught my ear, such as “For The First Time” and “This Old Dog,” but as a whole, the album did not seem to be nearly as innovative and riveting as the beloved “Salad Days” or his defining album “2.” When I first heard the album, I heard an old man instead of Mac. Where had he gone? Was this the same silly, goofy, sprightly DeMarco from all those years of crowd-surfing, Coachella and weird homemade music videos?
Feeling distraught and confused, I took a step back and listened to DeMarco all over again, starting with his very first Mini-LP “Rock and Roll Night Club” and up to his “Another One” demos.
One could argue that the Canadian-born musician has matured as an artist, but that line of thought comes from a surface-level observation of his music. 2012’s “Rock and Roll Night Club” is without a doubt his wackiest album to date (one that perhaps a rookie DeMarco fan would view as also being his shallowest work of art) and three of the songs — “Rock and Roll Night Club,” “Baby’s Wearing Blue Jeans” and “European Vegas” — even sound exactly the same as one another.
However, even from the get-go, that extra layer of authenticity, that softness of the heart, that unintentional and natural warmth that he emanates has always been there since his debut mini-LP. You can hear it in his reassuring words to a lover on “Me and Jon, Hanging On” and his yearning cries for recovery from a break-up in “Only You.” The interpretation of his music has never been a matter of maturity but more of how much of that content he has been willing to connect to his own personal life.
That’s where “This Old Dog” comes in. DeMarco has been open about his estranged father, whom he has said he views more as a stranger than kin. And unclarified references to his dad have been dropped here and there in his music. On his latest, listeners are given a glimpse into how DeMarco feels about the separation for the first time, and it contains perhaps the most revealing lyrics he has ever offered. “My Old Man” opens the album discussing his father in-depth, with the chorus (“Uh-oh, looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me”) establishing the album’s theme of getting older and having little control over one’s relationships. The album’s closing delivers an emotional climax, discussing his father once again but with more directness than ever before: “And even though we barely know each other / It still hurts / Watching him fade away.”
Without prior exposure to DeMarco’s work, “This Old Dog” probably wouldn’t be able to stand alone as a memorable album, with it lacking the signature DeMarco jizz jazz sound that gives him singularity in the indie crowd. It’s a low-metabolism collection of work relative to what he has traditionally produced and doesn’t include the innovativeness to lift it up.
However, if one were to listen to the album having understood DeMarco’s reservation in disclosing his personal life, the album becomes an entirely different experience. It becomes an awakening toward the impermanence of any stage in life, as we hear DeMarco in completely different spirits from even just a year ago.
The album is no doubt a reflection of DeMarco’s grief, but his dynamic nature and capabilities as a gifted guitarist saves the day. Perhaps the foremost song of the collection is found smack in the middle of the album in between a reassuring ode to young mistakes and a one-minute condolence piece to a grieving friend: “Still Beating,” and it’s loopy electric guitar and consistent theme of his unwavering loyalty to his girlfriend, maintains his admirable soft-heartedness that prevails through his lingering heartache.
Even though DeMarco is known both personally and musically for being a comical and lighthearted person, the acceptance of life possibly getting uglier as time wears on was needed to test his comfort and validate the purity of his playful and winsome “Rock and Roll Night Club,” “2” and “Salad Days.”
Verdict: Although noticeably gloomier than anything he has ever created before,“This Old Dog” is only an extension of DeMarco’s youth and vitality. It’s an essential piece to the story of growing up, and there’s no doubt that DeMarco is on his way to transcribing the next chapter of the unpredictable human experience.