You may think it ridiculous that McBriare Samuel Lanyon “Mac” DeMarco (Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV to his mother and Mac Demarco if you’re searching on Spotify) be considered an old dog by any stretch of the imagination, especially with just 27 years on the clock-o-meter. However, take into account the repertoire already under his belt over the past five years and it’s a body of work which most artists would kill for, from the lo-fi 2 to the adolescent Salad Days and the mature Another One.
This Old Dog follows neatly in this continuing odyssey, where ol’ Mac is beginning to reflect and it feels as though he’s hit that proverbial quarter-life crisis. Whereas his previous offering Another One was his ’70s adult contemporary release, this one seems to be his world weary, sombre, comedown record, as well as a solid display of his knack for concise, memorable and melodic songwriting.
The stripped back, ‘less is more’ approach of This Old Dog is evidently on display straight off the bat. Opening track ‘My Old Man’ reflects on the similarities he’s seeing with his estranged father as he opens up, singing: “Oh no, looks like I’m seein’ more of my old man in me”. Mac DeMarco has previously described his father, who checked out early from Mac’s life and seldom saw him while growing up as alcohol and addictions took control, as “one of those ‘Christmas Dads’ who just pops in on the holidays”. (Any evidence needed, just check out this video of the father-son relationship.)
It’s a starkly revealing and honest opening and sets the tone with a bare and exposed delivery, which is underlined with a CR-78 drum machine loop which features throughout. “That thing helped a ton, especially for demoing,” Mac reveals in the press release. “It’s on the album a lot, maybe four or five songs. I usually demo on a drum machine and then record real drums, but I liked that machine so much I kept it on the album. The majority of this album is acoustic guitar, synthesizer, some drum machine, and one song is electric guitar. So this is a new endeavour for me.”
And the new songs do resemble demo recordings made during the wee hours. Take title track ‘This Old Dog’, where an acoustic guitar is twinned with tinges of pedal steel sounding synths, which sound like shafts of sunshine seeping through the blinds. If that particular image had a sound.
‘Baby You’re Out’ shuffles along whimsically like mid-to-late-’90s Beck, while ‘For the First Time’ follows in the same thread as his classic hit and Tyler, The Creator favourite ‘Chamber of Reflection’ (if it was slowed down about 50bpm) and sprinkled with synths which could be from ‘Dolce Vita’ by Ryan Paris (if it was sped up about 50bpm). It also could be a distant relation to ‘Another One’ from his previous release.
Which leads us nicely into the next track, entitled ‘One Another’. A song where Mac DeMarco offers support to a friend going through a break up. “Hey man, so now you’ve got it off your chest / Your heart can finally get some rest / Same heart that started this whole mess”, he relates whilst evoking the spirit of Neil Young. “I think what I was trying to do is make Harvest with synthesizers” is his explanation, “but I don’t think I even came close to the mark — something else entirely came out. This is my acoustic album, but it’s not really an acoustic album at all. That’s just what it feels like, mostly. I’m Italian, so I guess this is an Italian rock record”. Hey man, nothing wrong with that. Ryan Paris was Italian too I guess. So it all comes together full circle.
‘Still Beating’ contains a killer soft-rock guitar melody which reappears throughout. It sounds glorious and achingly like the sequel to ‘Just to Put her Down’, as he sings during the chorus: “Honey, I cry too, you better believe it”. ‘Moonlight On The River’, the nearest we get to Classic Big Mac with its pitch shifting underwater guitars (“Sounds like SpongeBob” I once heard someone describe his ‘sound’). It sounds as if its bobbing with its head above water, rather than surfing or diving from a height as you’d get from Salad Days, and he mournfully repeats the line “Everybody dies…” while a Mogwai-esque crescendo begins to creep into the mix without fully exploding.
This Old Dog is an extremely personal record and quite clearly Mac DeMarco is trying to move forward from the slacker, happy-go-lucky, goofball vibes which he’s unfortunately been tarnished with. Maybe it’s not helped from his notorious onstage antics (like that time he was butt naked with a drum stick up his butt whilst singing U2 covers) and silly comedy skits with his bands (like that one time he cracked a friend’s back and skull before performing a psychedelic Irish jig) and needless extended cover songs during live shows (‘Enter Sandman’) and smashing a Spicy chicken wing challenge with varying degrees of heat (my hero).
This Old Dog, however, tries to grapple with his responsibility to deal with “serious issues”, usually revolving around the problems inflicted by his dad. During ‘On The Level’ he sings: “Carrying a name / Fall until my final day / Now who’s there left to blame?”. He later picks up on his father during the Lennon-inspired album closer, ‘Watching Him Fade Away’. As a lightheaded keyboard waltzes he confesses “Even though you barely know each other / It still hurts watching him fade way”. It’s short. Sweet. Concise. To the point. And utterly heartbreaking.
What really stands out is the openhearted nature of Mac DeMarco’s lyrics. Sure it may not be quite as immediate as his previous work, but it’s different. It’s a progression. And it’s brave. There are hidden gems to discover and earworms lurking underneath the surface, ready to be revealed after repeat listens. “As long as I feel real then there’s nothing else that matters”, he says. “Making these albums is just something that I have to do, and so I do it”. I hope he long continues to do it too.