Mac DeMarco is probably sick to the back teeth of reviewers mentioning that he once performed with a drumstick lodged up his posterior, yet this less than edifying anecdote could be said to sum up the Canadian’s reputation as a happy go lucky, slacker rock maverick who doesn’t take himself terribly seriously. His first two albums – 2012’s 2 and 2014’s Salad Days – were instantly likeable, quirky collections of off-kilter guitar pop that sometimes struggled to find the right balance between wilful weirdness and more straightforward confessional songwriting.
Despite his goofball persona, there’s no doubt DeMarco knows how to pen a tune and This Old Dog finally sees him deploying his considerable talents in a more cohesive, structured way. Originally recorded as demos in late 2015, DeMarco then abandoned the embryonic record for 12 months, spending 2016 touring before laying down the final versions in LA at the end of the year. Despite this long gestation, the songs on This Old Dog still feel fresh, direct and uncomplicated, and were apparently mostly recorded in one take.
Where the album differs most significantly from its predecessors is its very personal subject matter. DeMarco’s addict father walked out on the family when Mac was just four years old and This Old Dog catalogues the son’s struggle to come to terms with what happened. The wistful, often sad mood of the record reflects this cathartic process, with the eccentricities of DeMarco’s earlier work very much marginalised in what feels like a bid for greater artistic credibility from its creator.
Right from the start, DeMarco pulls few punches in capturing the themes of ageing, loss and regret. On opening track My Old Man, he looks in the mirror and is horrified to see his father looking back at him: “he can’t be me/look how old and cold and tired he’s become/not until you see/there’s a price tag hanging off having all that fun.” On Baby You’re Out, he muses on life’s big decisions, concluding that “dreams of greener grass will drive you mad”, while on One Last Love Song he laments a pattern of perennial relationship failure. Finally, with the album’s last two tracks – Moonlight on The River and Watching Him Fade Away – he tackles his abandonment by his father head on. These songs are arguably the most affecting here, with heart breaking lines like “It’s so strange, deciding how I feel about you/it’s ain’t like I ain’t used to going on without you.”
Musically, This Old Dog feels much more polished than DeMarco’s somewhat ramshackle approach to his previous albums, although the instruments he uses remain fairly standard; most of all, that familiar jaunty guitar, which can be heard at its most irresistibly catchy on the wonderful A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes, also featuring a Bob Dylanesque harmonica. Elsewhere, we do get some variety; for example, Dreams Of Yesterday delves into gentle bossa nova, while For the First Time is a languid ‘70s-style soft rock ballad and Sister a sparse acoustic vignette. DeMarco also marries textures to lyrical mood, notably with the distorted organ that accompanies Watching Him Fade Away’s sombre meditation on death.
It’s a cliché to talk about an artist growing up, but that is the overwhelming sense the listener gets from This Old Dog. It’s a mature, expertly crafted and thought provoking album, one that asks interesting questions about family and romantic relationships through distinctive, melodic and accessible songs. With this record, DeMarco has successfully dislodged the drumstick to become a performer of genuine class.