There is something inherently calming about Mac DeMarco, the singer-songwriter who makes music that evaporates into faint clouds of melody. His observational, colloquial songs are short — each one is written on an acoustic guitar or a synthesizer, or both — and deceptively simple. They sound like chamber pop made by a particularly precise Deadhead, or a quite sloppy Steely Dan fan. DeMarco plays all the instruments on his recordings, not just that guitar and those synths, but the drums and bass and harmonica, and he sings, too. The songs are, as a friend once derisively described them, winsome. Mac seems like a nice fellow. An unpretentious guy.
I think of DeMarco’s albums like a deli sandwich: When the core ingredients are in place, the taste is there — and when it’s finished, you can feel it in the pit of your stomach. DeMarco is unambitious in a comforting way. He’s not a striver. It makes him difficult to write about, or to talk about, or prosthelytize for. There’s no take here. The songs are good.
Mac DeMarco’s new album, his third full-length, is called This Old Dog. Released Friday, it bears all the hallmarks of a Mac DeMarco album — a curious combination of plainspoken cliché (“Wishin’ for tomorrow today / She still says she’s true”) and subtly clever turns of phrase (“My heart still beats for you / even though you don’t feel it”), wrapped in notes that bend and quiver. There’s something slightly off, something rounded and strange about these songs. They sound like they’ve been recorded in a room decorated with fun-house mirrors. This Old Dog has drawn comparisons to the music of ’70s bards, like James Taylor (if you favor the fragile emotionalist), Harry Nilsson (if you favor the wry romantic), Randy Newman (if you favor the wry fatalist), and Neil Young (if you favor the fragile fatalist — or if you’re DeMarco, who explicitly cites Harvest as an influence). Influence is a messy thing for an artist working in what feels like an antiquated form. Indie rock — a meaningless, iterative phrase that was once used on the internet to delineate “not major label” and then “artful and serious” and then “commodify me, please” — has been in a vague moment of silent crisis for years now. But DeMarco has been largely unaffected. His albums sell well enough, given their overhead. His tours are successful. He is more well-known now than ever. He is championed by a specific brand of bro. And he is an uncommonly popular denizen of the internet. His life and career are an object of fascination on Reddit, and the reasons why are obvious. He’s antic, a troublemaker performing some sweet social experiment.
DeMarco quite famously shared the address of his home in Far Rockaway, Queens, on a 2015 song. At the end of the instrumental, he delivered the exact location, inviting listeners to “Stop on by — I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” Many did just that. At Coachella this year, he alerted fans that his new album had leaked on the internet and began listing all the illegal (and in some cases defunct) places people should go to steal it. “Soulseek!” he mock-shouted, a real millennial goof if there ever was one. He grinned devilishly onstage while sporting a broad straw hat with a band covered in palm trees, clutching a cigarette between two fingers of one hand and a beer in the other. He seemed so impish and thrilled to be upending a system that’s been broken for decades. Earlier this week DeMarco surprised his bandmate Jon Lent when he revealed to him a Los Angeles–area billboard with Lent’s face plastered on it, nominally promoting This Old Dog. It was an inside joke that doubled as a public act of meme-ing. Lent was gobsmacked, but smiling. What else should a close confidante expect? This ease with the ridiculous is essential for Life With Mac. DeMarco is not serious and he is funny, but more importantly, he’s casual. He evinces a “What — Me Worry?” attitude like a similarly gap-toothed avatar of jocular pranksterism before him. Just look at the guy tell stories while eating chicken and milk:
The lack of pretense — maybe it’s born of his Canadian upbringing, or maybe he’s just long term a beneficiary of the chillwave sham — makes DeMarco seem like a low-stakes proposition. Like a guy you can ignore if you don’t have the time. I didn’t at first, and then, like so many who caught wind of his music at a dinner party or a cookout or a middling music festival or an algorithmically generated playlist on a streaming service, I was ensnared. So This Old Dog is more of the same, and yet different. It’s more refined, and there’s a wound in the center of it. Many of the songs are about a feeling of absence or loss, informed by his relationship with his father, who casts a long shadow on several songs on the album. But filial pain is a funny thing when it’s delivered with these chords and this face.
DeMarco is often called the “crown prince” or the “boy king” of indie rock. He’s 27 now, and getting a little old for the princely delineation. This Old Dog is the first time he appears to be reckoning with mortality, with a dark past and an unknown future. “Remember all the faces still unseen,” he sings on “Baby You’re Out,” a typically elliptical, cheerful song that could double as the hold music for a tiki bar. The most oft-cited lyric on the album comes from “My Old Man”: “I’m seeing more of my old man in me.” It’s a universally uncomplicated, loosely upsetting feeling — that moment when you catch your reflection and see a parent staring back. DeMarco surrounds the chorus of his song with a loopy arrangement: “Uh-oh! Looks like! I’m seeing more of my old man in me …” Even his soul-searching is mordant. What a joker.