Throughout his career, Mac DeMarco’s antics have threatened to overshadow the fact that he’s really quite the sweetheart. He may get naked onstage for an impromptu U2 cover or he may sing a song with his girlfriend on his shoulders. The merry prankster who’ll wake a sleeping friend with a dick to the face also appointed his mother to be secretary of his own fan club. He’ll write a love song to his favorite brand of cigarettes (“Ode to Viceroy”) as well as a desperate plea for his girlfriend not to be deported (“Let My Baby Stay”). Whether you think DeMarco is indie rock’s Jim Carrey or its Chris Pratt, you can’t deny that he’s got a heart of gold.
That heart of gold comes into focus like never before on his new album “This Old Dog.” Despite the title, DeMarco’s latest is not about man’s best friend (he’s never actually had a dog); it’s the similarly titled “My Old Man” that kicks off the record and serves as its thematic overview. DeMarco’s father – an addict and alcoholic –walked out on the family when he was 4 years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his brother. When DeMarco sings “uh-oh, looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me,” it’s not that he’s afraid of growing old – it’s that he’s afraid of repeating his father’s mistakes.
So it’s mildly amusing – though mostly accurate – to describe this album’s sound as “dad rock.” There are songs that have ‘80s flourishes like drum machines (“My Old Man”), cheesy synthesizers (“On the Level”) or both (“Dreams from Yesterday”), but more than anything else, “This Old Dog” resembles a ‘70s singer-songwriter album. “This Old Dog” and “Still Beating” are gentle, acoustic ballads in the vein of James Taylor and Paul Simon. Take the title track, in which DeMarco recasts an old dog’s inability to learn new tricks as an expression of faithfulness: “This old dog ain’t about to forget/All we’ve had/And all that’s next,” he sings.
It’s definitely a step away from the wiry, jangling electric guitar of his previous outings; most of DeMarco’s guitar playing is unplugged and unhurried (except for “Moonlight on the River”). On top of that, he’s brought some more instruments into the fold, like the aforementioned synthesizer, which takes the lead in a couple of songs (“For the First Time,” “On the Level”). Perhaps the most musically complicated track DeMarco has recorded thus far (and certainly one of his best) is “One More Love Song,” in which DeMarco plugs his guitar back in, playing with a little more reverb than usual over a gently rolling drum fill as a warbling synthesizer swims around it, all building up to a piano-drenched chorus: “Is one more love out to break your heart?” DeMarco croons, “Set it up just to watch it fall apart.” The smoothness of the song is a testament to how comfortable and capable DeMarco is as an instrumentalist and producer.
Thematically, “This Old Dog” swings back and forth between such romantic numbers and songs that address DeMarco’s absentee father. While DeMarco takes some creative license with the love songs – DeMarco’s relationship with his girlfriend is much better than “For the First Time” and “Still Beating” might imply – the songs about his father come from a more autobiographical place. In particular, the closing three songs form a trilogy of sorts: DeMarco wonders if his father would be proud of him on “On the Level,” while “Moonlight on the River” finds him questioning the feelings he has for his father – or if he has them at all – before burning the song down in squall of guitar noise. But it’s the final number, “Watching Him Fade Away,” that cuts the deepest. “And even though we barely know each other,” DeMarco gently sings over a hushed keyboard, “it still hurts watching him fade away.” DeMarco’s father was recently diagnosed with cancer, but one gets the sense that DeMarco lost his father long ago.
I don’t know if “This Old Dog” makes for the kind of dad-rock album that you would buy as a Father’s Day present – then again, I probably don’t know your dad – but it adds dimension to an artist who’s often unfairly pegged as an insufferable slacker. The Mac DeMarco who sings on “This Old Dog” is a more tender, reflective and, dare I say it, mature songwriter than we’ve seen before. More than that, it’s his third great album in a row. Not bad for a guy who’s never had anyone to play catch with – four-legged or otherwise.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.