To even the most casual Mac DeMarco listeners, it shouldn’t be hard to tell that the man is a skilled songwriter. From his early days to the present, the 27-year-old has written more than his fair share of quality tunes, from “Island Groovies” to “Chamber of Reflection.”
On May 5, DeMarco released his fifth full-length album, “This Old Dog.” Although DeMarco stuck to his distinct, indie-psychedelic sound, DeMarco really hit his stride as one of music’s most heartfelt and self-aware auteurs with this new music. Listeners witness DeMarco at his most palpably mature.
DeMarco’s songs have always comprised an air of sincerity about them, but those narratives are a lot more difficult to conceal this time around. Many of “This Old Dog’s” themes are family-centric, from grappling with the reality of becoming more like the father you never knew (“My Old Man”) to swallowing the guilt and sadness in the face of his death, no matter how estranged he may have been (“Watching Him Fade Away”). DeMarco likes what he does and sticks to what he knows on his new album — and he does it well.
Despite having matured, he hasn’t abandoned his principles, which means campfire jams like the inimitable “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes” and “Baby You’re Out” deliver the kind of groove-infused levity you’d expect from de facto DeMarco.
Still, the maturation leads to some dark places for the musician. In the past, DeMarco has spoken at considerable length about his relationship with his father, who left when he was just 4 years old. It’s alarming to hear DeMarco sing, “Oh no, looks like I’m seein’ more of my old man in me” on the track “My Old Man.”
On “Sister,” another song that hits home on the album, DeMarco sweetly serenades a half-sister who had a more positive influence on his upbringing.
Though DeMarco is signed to Captured Tracks and Royal Mountain Records, he produced and engineered “This Old Dog” himself, making it even more authentic. The Canadian singer-songwriter isn’t new to music producing — he’s gained experience working in previous bands of his including The Meat Cleavers, The Sound of Love and Outdoor Miners.
DeMarco gives into goofy impulses — which can be heard in the delightful pseudo-sexy ballad “For The First Time” — but the emotional core is omnipresent. “For The First Time,” similar to “On the Level,” changes the sound from the first few songs by using keyboard synths that linger and buzz behind DeMarco’s soothing, muted voice. He sings about the feelings of seeing a girl as if it’s the first time.
The ninth track on the record, “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes,” is based on the old-told Bible lesson to beware of those who appear to be one thing, but are truly someone else that will betray you. DeMarco has a harmonica in the background reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s skills.
DeMarco has a dreamy voice he mixes with smooth guitar, drums and keyboard, all of which together make him sound like the music is being played on an old cassette. There are evident influences of rhythm and blues and borrowed styles from artists such as Steely Dan that DeMarco shapes into his own timeless, indie-psychedelic rock style.
“This Old Dog” represents a clear expression of DeMarco’s “dark” side. Unimpeded by groovy electric guitar riffs or lithe bass parts, most of the songs play out with little more than an acoustic guitar and a drum machine. DeMarco seems to have gotten out of his own way, eager for his voice to finally be heard. That’s what makes Mac DeMarco such an incontrovertible thread in the fabric of pop culture.
Listeners need him to tell these stories that discuss guilt, hurt and romantic longing because his nonchalant outward demeanor forces his listeners to realize how real he’s being. Being a goofball who writes goofball pop songs is one thing, but being a deep, multidimensional millennial songwriter with a goofball streak is another thing altogether. It seems he’s finally begun to give listeners more of the latter.