Review: Mac DeMarco, This Old Dog

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Mac DeMarco This Old Dog artwork

On paper, it’s probably really easy to dislike Mac DeMarco’s songs. He makes the kind of music that most people have been subconsciously trained to avoid. The production quality vacillates between “lo-fi” and “definitely underwater.” The tone is woozy and drugged. His melody shifts in and out of tune arbitrarily, and his vocal style is languid to the point of lethargic, making everything feel raw and incomplete. In short: His catalog seems to counter every classical explanation of what music should sound like. So naturally, DeMarco has become one of the most sought-after artists of his time. 

The explanation here is simple, albeit a little gimmicky: “On paper,” has all-but-lost its meaning. To assess any work from the standpoint of “on paper” is to overlook the nuance that defines an artist in the first place. Being a member of society in 2017 means at-least-sort-of accepting the fact that nothing is binary, and that those varying shades of gray are critical to adequately capture the complexity of life. Mac DeMarco understands all of this because he was raised in all of this, and his music has been crafted to reflect how languid, lethargic and arbitrarily out of tune his own life has sorted out. It’s not always pretty, and it's not always perfect, but it's always true. 

These are some heady life lessons we’re talking about, and truthfully, they wouldn’t be nearly as easy to follow if they were in the hands of literally anyone else. That’s what makes DeMarco so indispensable: He takes his art very seriously. The subject matter within his songs may occasionally drift into austere territory, but that’s okay because it’s still Mac we’re talking about. There’s still a gap in his teeth, and his hair is still permanently messed up, and he’s probably still running around naked somewhere as we speak. The Mac DeMarco aesthetic is a balanced one, to say the least. 

Except I think we've reached a bit of a turning point: Many would argue that the goofy grin and offstage demeanor that once solidified DeMarco as indie music’s class clown are slowly fading in the face of a now-unavoidably-great level of artistry. He’s literally getting too good for his façade. We saw this matriculation begin to materialize on Another One, an outstanding 2015 mini-LP that burned a little slower and a little hotter than any previous DeMarco record did. But it’s on This Old Dog where DeMarco really hits his stride as one of music’s most heartfelt and self-aware auteurs.

On Dog, we witness DeMarco at his most palpably mature. His 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 Dog’s themes are family-centric, ranging from a fight with the realization that he’s becoming more and more like the father he 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”). On “Sister”, DeMarco sweetly serenades a half-sister who clearly made a much more impressionable mark on his upbringing, and on the beautifully stoic “On the Level”, he leverages a figurative father/son conversation against the eventual reality of his actual life.

Needless to say, Dog is a heavy album—the most emotionally swollen of DeMarco’s albums to date, in fact. But that doesn’t make it any less palatable. DeMarco has matured, but he hasn’t abandoned his core tenets, which means campfire jams like the inimitable “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes” and “Baby You’re Out” deliver the kind of groove-infused levity you’d expect from de facto DeMarco. 

But this album is first and foremost a demonstration of Mac’s emotional development. And no other track on This Old Dog demonstrates that development like “One More Love Song”, his most poignantly penned track to date. Blending the top-heavy analog sway of “Chamber of Reflection” with the serpentine stair-step of “A Heart Like Hers”, “Love Song” features Mac at his most hurt and most penitent. “Another dream put to bed / After all this time, turns out all you had / Was one more love out to break your heart,” DeMarco croons mournfully, as though the hope of future love has been completely crushed by the curse of present hurt. I’ve never heard a Mac track that caused such a visceral reaction.

And that’s what makes DeMarco such an incontrovertible thread in the fabric of pop culture. We need him to tell us these stories and to guide us through guilt and hurt and heart-burst and romantic longing because he has this niche penchant for explaining big concepts in very user-friendly ways. Being a goofball who writes goofball pop songs is one thing. Being a deep, multidimensional millennial songwriter who speaks fluent goofball is an entirely different thing. We need more of the second thing. B PLUS