One of my favourites, Mac DeMarco, released his third full-length album at the start of the month and after a slightly pessimistic start to my last article, this has been a welcome remedy. I first listened to this album in full on a trip from my home in Glasgow to the Isle of Bute, just off the west coast. Blessed, surprisingly, with what can best be described as ‘tap’s aff’ weather’ in Scotland, Mac’s latest release was the perfect soundtrack to my spontaneous weekend holiday.
We’d already had a glimpse of the new album with February’s release of My Old Man, which I thought hinted at, not-so-much a new direction but, at least, a new flavour in Mac’s style. It begins with a short, repetitive electronic drum beat and gets on the road with an open sounding acoustic guitar ringing through the verse, reminding me of something the La’s may play. His vocals here are presented in a a soft narrative tone, taking the listener through the singers thoughts on their subject, in this case reflecting, I think, on how the Canadian singer-songwriter’s success has changed him;
‘Look in the mirror
who do you see?
but surely not me
For he can’t be me
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
Uh-oh, look’s like I’m seeing more of my old man in me’
This Old Dogcreates a similar mood with a darker acoustic sound, this time complimented with smooth synth swells throughout the chorus. The title track this time is placed in the same spot as 2015’s Another One, and both tracks share the use of warm synth tones to provide comfort around the singer’s lyrical heartaches. This contrasts with 2012’s Salad Days which opened with a cocky, groove-inciting title track. Again, I think it’s safe to say we’re seeing a deeper side of Mac here.
Baby You’re Out first gives us the hit of a fresh summer breeze. This song sounds like a nice walk in the park with a bit of Mungo Jerry in it’s step. The short and simple chorus provides a nice relief and back into the main hook, led by a catchy descending piano riff accompanied by bright strumming and an easy-going, Ringo Starr-like drum beat with percussion.
Then, For the First Timeon this album we get a glimpse of synth-Mac at track 4. There’s no acoustic guitar to provide the foundations of this one, which leaves a lot of space for Mac’s vocals to the carry the song, with starry synth-tones providing an atmospheric soundscape. It carries a pretty somber, reflective feeling throughout most of the song, only changing briefly when he moves from a minor sound (an Fminor7 chord) to a surprising, fuller, happier tone to anticipate the chorus (using a C7 chord.) This correlates with the lyrics, which start off gloomily;
‘While she’s been away
livin’ day-to-day’s been tough
found her at my side
simply bein’ alive’s been rough’
But, when we hear this chord change, we are treated to a more satisfied expression;
‘It’s just like seein’ her
for the first time
Highlighted in this example is my impression of Mac’s desire to explore darker moods, both lyrically and musically, while offering light-hearted resolutions to the tension this creates. This continues over the next couple of pieces, and One Another begins with a quick pick-me-up (‘Hey kid, everybody’s prone to some mistakes’) as Still Beating gives us comfort with the line ‘Honey, I cried too, you better believe it.’ Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, and One Another does play to this with chirpy guitar, a bubbly outro solo (favouring the major pentatonic scale) and even some sleigh bells. Though, the latter trackcontrasts this as Mac performs with a cooler tone using tasty guitar arpeggios and slides (this time electric and silky.)
Sister is a lovely, short interlude almost half-way through the album. It’s just over a minute of Mac picking a rich, chorusy guitar and singing with a strained voice. Very simplistic, like many of the tunes on this album, but manages to carry a lot of emotional weight behind it.
Halfway trough the album and it’s clear we’re hearing a deeper side of Mac compared to previous releases, particularly lyrically. The instrumentation, as always, is minimal; acoustic guitars and synths are used to provide repetitive rhythm tracks, leaving space to have the singer’s melodies take the spotlight. Various short, often playful hooks are commonly used to lift the mood after more sullen moments and these guitar, piano and harmonica parts help provide an interesting juxtaposition between the more depressing lyrics.
I can imagine Dreams from Yesterday being played in a smoky jazz bar in the evening. The song creates it’s own intimate environment just upon the moment it’s electronic drum-beat hits the speakers. A jazzy, strummed guitar follows, with a smooth, steady synth tone drifting along beside it. Also in this song, is perhaps my favourite vocal performance of the album. Mac’s casual and cool embellishment of the chorus line ‘it was you, who denied it‘ (at around 1:12) is a melodic lift you’ll love to imitate.
The next song, I suppose, is not so cool as A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes is more in-your-face catchy and easy-going than others on This Old Dog. It’s got a similar vibe to One Another and, looking back, it’s fair to suggest that both these tracks have been built from the same songwriting template (intentional or not, who knows.) Both feature short bass runs in their introduction, are led by repeated guitar patterns, contain two verses, and the only guitar solos on the album are heard in these two songs – used as outros each time. Finally, both pieces last almost exactly the same length with One Another lasting 2 minutes and 46 seconds and A Wolf… coming in at 2:49. This may be significant for listeners hoping for some ground-breaking material from Demarco. However, as consolation to the selfish listener hoping to cruelly explore their favourite artist’s dark-side (most of us!), this is the last happy-go-lucky, guitar based number on the record.
One More Love Song is another of Mac’s songs that I think was specifically made for smoking joints and lying down (see also: the title track from Another One and Salad Days’ Chamber of Reflection.) The chilled out, straight drum-beat is accented with glowing guitar and a serene synth bobbing along. Emphatic chords and gentle ascending and descending lines are played on piano around falsetto vocals to make a memorable chorus. One More Love Song softens further to a quiet close before the warm pads of On the Level enter. They are joined by a sharp, flashing electronic sound which continues throughout the song, pausing before the soothing verse begins. There aren’t many dynamic changes here, as the artist opts not to disturb the listener as they unwind through the latter half of the album.
LikeDreams of Yesterday, the moment Moonlight by the River comes through the speakers I can only think of how well Demarco uses music to create a certain mood. Flavoured with rippling echoes of guitar, a mellow drum and bass track from the slow-moving foundations of the penultimate track, while Mac takes his time singing through the verse. Again, we have gentle synths sailing past acoustic rhythm guitar and sparkling electric arpeggios walk us through crashes of abstract noise towards the closing minutes. At 7:03, this is the longest piece on the album, and although it’s not the most optimistic setting Mac has created for the listener, I’m perfectly happy to stay here for longer.
I must admit that I love the album’s finale, Watching Him Fade Away. It’s a sweet, personal song carried only by a keyboard and vocals. I enjoyed this sound immediately – coming to the end of my trip I had my head in the clouds and this soft keyboard sat along beside me, creating a warm, pleasant frisson. The bittersweet ending came just as we arrived at our destination and I felt genuinely sad that the album was over after this simple, emotive song.
I think the album’s closing moments accentuate Mac’s aforementioned ability to move his listener to a certain feeling with, seemingly, so little. Songs are built on just a few instruments, or even just two or three musical ideas, and with these tools the songwriter can confidently choose to walk us through a sunny day or allow us to lay back, relaxing as the music glistens through the space he has created. It ‘s only lyrically that his doubts present themselves and his words, I think, are key to the new aspects of the artist we’ve observed in this release. In my opinion, with This Old Dog, we are given an intimate, introspective work, inviting the listener into the singer’s world. I really enjoyed it, and eagerly anticipate the places he’s going to take us in the future. But first, I’ll see him play the Barrowlands at the end of the year.
Thanks for reading. What do you think of This Old Dog?