Mac DeMarco This Old Dog

[Captured Tracks; 2017]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: mellow, melancholy, adult
Others: Makeout Videotape, Walter TV, Home Shake

Mac has been coasting by on his inimitable charm for a while now, and for whatever reason, it still works on me to some extent — the charm, that is. It might not be worth going into exactly why — speaking only for myself — I might still be fool enough to not find it wholly undermined by the majority display of nonspecificity on This Old Dog; it might even be worth wondering if those two factors aren’t in fact intrinsically related in the context of this album, as if its prevailing superficies of blandness is some kind of extended joke in keeping with Mac’s “fun-loving” persona, “goofy” as he is supposed to be. But whatever spiny issues surround questions of authenticity and personas — and clichés — there’s still something to be said in individual cases like this, even if the topic in general and as a whole is exhausted and some care has to be exercised in its invocation (and boy does it). Here it is relevant, not least because Mac himself makes it so whether he means to or not.

But before we get too much further into that, it’s more useful, for now, to try to make a brief and provisional inventory of themes, sounds, etc.:

A. The most prominent subject matter of this album is the at-the-time impending death of his mostly absent father (who has since recovered, a possibly awkward — or redemptive — fact that for us must remain external to the matter at hand), and the most noteworthy thing about this is the frank way Mac portrays his ambivalence about it. This encounter with filial confusion — and not various other forms of “introspection,” like the uncertainty of getting older, weary-before-his-time stuff that have already been a feature of his work (Salad Days’s title track, among many others) — is what’s thematically distinctive about This Old Dog. It might be too soon to say that Mac will never sing about cigarettes again or that the Mac of oozy pitched-down sleaze is gone forever, but they aren’t here at least. Time to purge those superfluous watery humors by the eyes instead.

B. Despite having moments that tip it toward being his most “challenging” album lyrically (if being challenging has anything to do with being serious), This Old Dog might be his least interesting instrumentally and musically. Of course, attempting to assess Mac DeMarco albums according to a metric of comparative “challenging”ness is a basic category mistake, yet nevertheless…. he’s drifting — deliberately, or just by not keeping his eyes open — closer and closer to the so-called middle of the so-called road, a dangerous zone that not many can survive unscathed. What you’ll find here is a greater predominance of acoustic guitars compared to previous albums, even a harmonica, and there’s a real acoustic piano in the background on one song (the twangy, reverby electrics that used to be something of a personal signature are for the most part relegated to providing a little unobtrusive decoration). And yet, with the possible exception of the very, very brief “Sister,” one doesn’t have the impression that he’s using the opportunities that this kind of instrumentation supposedly offer the musician (greater intimacy, humanity, spontaneity, and all those terrible things). Mac still uses his synths from time to time too, but he doesn’t seem to have found any new settings for them. As a whole, then, it’s perfect for a “chill” BBQ or perhaps for blasting out into a deserted amphitheatre overgrown with weeds on a lazy summer’s day. But those are best-case scenarios: it’s just as easy to imagine that Mac is covering his own songs in some insipidly accessible pseudo-bossa nova style in preparation for pitching them to the particular kind of cafe that, in my neck of the woods at least, seems to think its customers won’t be too distracted by such things.

C. Mac’s aforementioned charm rides at least partly on not giving a shit, so it’s either unfair or a misunderstanding (of whatever it was that has been responsible for giving him any appeal) to expect ambition. Still, not demanding ambition doesn’t mean expecting slackness. When he sings “There’s a price tag hanging offa half of all that fun,” I can’t say what that price tag might be for the man himself, but whatever the other consequences might be, his musical mellowing out and “maturing” might be just one of them (a high price!). And this isn’t the only aspect of the album’s descent into the commonplace. When it comes to the lyrics, the lack of (evident) artifice, the almost willful blandness — or more charitably, generality — sometimes highlights the sentiment in question, at the same time precise but unspecific (hence, recognizable and generalizable). Sure, the most effective songs here aren’t the generic love songs, the songs posed so often as a kind of advice-delivery system to younger protégé/self, and sure, there are songs that make such flagrant use of clichés (I don’t ever want to hear about a wolf in sheep’s clothing again, in any context) that no amount of irony could plausibly count as a defense. But the album’s standout track “Moonlight on the River” has the effect it does precisely by evoking what could easily seem like platitudes (“everybody dies”) in a context that is utterly frank in its ambivalence (this is one of the songs mentioned above dealing with the possible death of his father), “I’d tell you that I loved you, if I did.” It isn’t harmed either by being the longest track on the record, featuring an extended coda of spacey arpeggios that don’t qualify as ambition per se, but do qualify as something I like. We’ve all heard someone fuck around with an echo pedal or other such device, but I’ll confess to still thinking it’s cool. I won’t try to convince you that it’s new though, because it isn’t.

D. A song like “Moonlight on the River” makes it seem as if Mac is more able to be sincere in a song than when acting as himself in public. It’s interesting, then, to read in interviews that Mac says he has tried to minimize the gap between the “real” Mac and the public face. I’ve no doubt he means it, but it’s easy to point out that public persona is a concept more equivocal than that might imply — it sure ain’t the same stuff being expressed in songs as it is in the actions of the public Mac. And perhaps, then, overcome with an enthusiasm for distinctions, you might want to say that the private Mac is also twofold, that there’s a real private depth that can never be plumbed as well as the way he acts in the private sphere (never mind the philosophical and political status of either form of privacy). The temptation would then be to try to pin them all together like butterflies to a board, either the same one pin slid through them all to create a neat but uncomfortable overlap or arranged carefully side by side, the better to engage in precise comparisons, to catch out inconsistencies, to perform a peculiar taxonomical game. But we would no doubt find — for Mac as for everyone else — these distinctions too are in fact too few. “Often a heart tends to change its mind,” he sings on “This Old Dog,” — a little mind for every organ, what a multiplication of homunculi! Instead of looking for a locus of control in a persona — single, solid, and probably conscious — you might look for uncharacteristically vigorous agglomerations of tissue, with all their irregular and subverbal tendencies. But without getting carried away with too much digging around in those innards, there’s another twist in the tale: the very next line of the song in question seems to invoke some kind of diurnal agency instead: “A new day decides on a new design.” So on to the outer spheres, to the celestial movements that govern those of our globe we go, contemplation of which I’m sure you’ll agree is a loftier and more edifying business than the sordid character-based speculation you’ll find here.

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