“Sea Change” is a series that discusses album or albums in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style.
Mac DeMarco, a Canadian singer-songwriter, has slowly become the new face of independent rock; his impromptu, goofy nature, endless love for Viceroy cigarettes, and fashion based on Goodwill finds has influenced multitudes of youngsters across the nation.
Even after becoming a national music icon, DeMarco tries to live fairly simply and without a care. His music fits perfectly with this image. It seems, however, that Mac is beginning to grow out of the style that made him popular on his new album This Old Dog.
To fully understand this change, let’s discuss Mac’s story:
After releasing his distorted, dreamy EP Rock and Roll Night Club in 2012, DeMarco signed with Captured Tracks and was on the road to stardom.
That same year he released his first LP, 2. Listening to this particular release, one can hear DeMarco figuring out and solidifying his sound. His music consists of slightly out of tune electric guitars, hazy and echoing synthesizers, sometimes soft and sometimes goofy vocals, and riff-driven songs.
For some, 2 was a new kind of indie rock that was revolutionary. For others, it was a lazy effort by someone who couldn’t really put a unique song together. Regardless, DeMarco became increasingly popular and began to create his own celebrity image.
Two years later, Salad Days became DeMarco’s best selling album up to that point and is often considered to be his best record to date. While 2 felt like a musical experiment, Salad Days shows a musician who has hit their stride both musically and lyrically.
The songs are mesmerizing, calming, and relaxing but not incredibly complex or unique. While this plays into Mac’s image as a loose, easy-going guy, after multiple listens of the album, I got tired of it and moved on, occasionally turning on “Blue Boy” or “Let Her Go” in the car. Yes, the album is good, but it’s not good enough for me to call it a genre-defining masterpiece.
2015 saw the release of Another One, an approximately 20 minute long, mini-LP that showcased DeMarco’s remarkable ability to create smart, catchy indie-pop tunes while still staying true to his unique style. I thought for a long time that this was his best album to date, but Another One, like Salad Days, faded out and just seemed like an album I’d turn to if I needed to feel good or relaxed.
Though these albums are fairly well-crafted and unique to the genre, they feel like “high school music;” songs that will soon become nostalgic and indicative of a time and place. The tunes are different and new for this decade and represent a lifestyle for outsiders and kids who feel they don’t belong in the “popular” groups. Every decade has its own kind of “outsider music,” however, so I’m skeptical that albums such as Another One will stand the test of time.
Mac DeMarco’s most recent album, This Old Dog, is different.
It is the result of a maturing musician coming to terms with issues he’s dealt with his entire life. The album is sophisticated, somber, and brilliant.
While Mac doesn’t stray incredibly far from the style that made him popular, his focus on his songwriting and song crafting has greatly improved over the past two years and he’s a better artist as a result.
According to Mac himself “Usually, I just write, record, and put [an album] out; no problem. But this time, I wrote [my songs] and they sat. When that happens, you really get to know the songs. It was a different vibe.”
Throughout the entire record, it’s clear that DeMarco spent much more time with these songs, making this his most thought-out, refined album to date.
For the entire album, DeMarco primarily sticks to light instrumentation and leads each song with an acoustic guitar that grounds the songs, making them less indie-pop and more folk-based. The composition is less goofy and dreamy and is based more in reality and human emotion, reflecting the overall feel of the record.
Thematically, the album revolves around two primary ideas: aging and dealing with the past.
Both of these themes are brought up in the opening track “My Old Man.”
The song opens with a few seconds of a simple drum machine, which establishes a simple, quiet beat. Eventually, Mac begins to play an acoustic guitar and then brings in a synthesizer for the chorus. That’s pretty much it for his arrangement.
Even though these kinds of instruments have been utilized on previous compositions, they are placed further back in the mix, putting focus on the lyrics. While other songs by DeMarco incorporated lots of synthesizers or electric guitars to establish certain riffs or musical phrases, in “My Old Man,” the music provides a rhythm and canvas that the artist paints upon. There are no extra flairs to the composition. The rest of the album follows this trend.
“My Old Man” illustrates an artist looking within himself and questioning who he is at the moment.
At a young age, DeMarco’s father, who was an avid substance abuser, abandoned his family and almost never made contact with them until fairly recently when he was diagnosed with cancer.
All of his life, Mac has wanted to be a better man than his father and wanted to move on from his difficult childhood life; however, as he notes in the song, he is worried that he is slowly becoming more and more like his dad and is becoming wrapped up in his past.
“Look in the mirror / Who do you see? / Someone familiar / 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.”
DeMarco realizes that the image he has created for himself as a popular musician may be causing him more harm than good. He’s growing older and slowly becoming tired of the “fun” that he’s been having over the past five years as an “indie rock prince.” By continuing down this path, Mac fears he will turn into his father and wind up lonely, cold, and mean.
The last three songs on the album “On The Level,” “Moonlight On The River,” and “Watching Him Fade Away,” bring the album back to this theme of DeMarco’s father and dealing with the past.
In “On The Level,” the narrator, which is clearly Mac, discusses with himself his current situation and how he wants to move on with his life. He wants to make his family proud and do something effective and good with his time on Earth, but he’s also worried that there’s a price to pay for his fame, which is described in “My Old Man” as well. He also writes that he will be the only person to blame if he falls short of his goals and cannot push the blame on his father or his family.
For this piece, Mac’s signature synthesizer plays a more pronounced role but, even then, it is still placed in the background.
“Moonlight On The River” and “Watching Him Fade Away” deal with the artist’s present situation with his father, who is slowly dying of a terminal illness. Though he wants to remain distant from his father, DeMarco doesn’t want to leave his old man and watch him die alone. Though he feels like he should reconnect with his dad, DeMarco can’t quite bring himself to fully re-accept this figure back into his life.
“Moonlight On The River” is the longest song on the album even though the lyrics only take up around three minutes of the piece. The last four minutes turn into an experimental combination of various music samples, instrument loops, and echoes that illustrate the emotional turmoil that DeMarco is going through at this time.
Immediately following this disorienting song is “Watching Him Fade Away,” the album closer, which is just Mac and a keyboard. Like Nick Drake on “Pink Moon,” this stripping away of all other instruments makes the musician much more vulnerable and open to the listener, exposing their inner emotions and feelings.
The rest of the album continues to revolve around the theme of loss, the past, and the future, but the songs are less personal. They seem more like pieces of advice to the listener rather than inward-looking reflections. One can interpret this, on the other hand, as being DeMarco trying to piece together how he, himself, should deal with the past and what he should do with the rest of his life.
Sometimes, DeMarco has a more optimistic look on life in songs such as “One Another,” “Baby You’re Out,” and “Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes.” Here, the listener is told that there’s no use crying over heartbreak and paying attention to the wants and needs of other people; instead, you’ve got to pay attention to and stay true to yourself, moving on with your life and taking action to accomplish your goals and aspirations. The musical accompaniment is just as upbeat and optimistic as the lyrics.
Note: Listener discretion is advised for the song “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes.”
Some of the songs, however, show DeMarco losing hope in his life and wanting things that will never happen. Though the songs may not be auto-biographical, the themes and ideas discussed in them show the personal turmoil that he is feeling.
The songs “For the First Time,” “Still Beating,” and “One More Love Song,” tell stories of people who have lost in love and are wanting to find some way to move on with their lives but can not. The narrators are either stuck in the past, which is found in “For The First Time” and “Still Beating,” or try to move on and only find more sadness as they go, which appears in “One More Love Song.”
In concert, DeMarco seemed like a musician stuck between two worlds. When he played his older hits, such as “Ode to Viceroy” and “Still Together,” he was joyful and full of life, actively interacting with the crowd and his band and generally having fun with the tunes that he was playing.
When he switched to his material off of This Old Dog, in particular “Moonlight On The River,” Mac changed; he became much more somber, moving less on stage and mainly standing in the center with his acoustic guitar. The smile vanished from his face as the lights turned a darker shade of blue. The audience however, remained the same, crowdsurfing, waving their hands in the air, chanting and singing along, still seeing Mac as their happy-go-lucky outsider leader. It was certainly strange.
Only time will tell whether Mac will be able to grow out of the persona he has built over these past five years or if he will stick to what his fans have come to expect.
This Old Dog is by far Mac DeMarco’s best album; he has grown up and writes difficult, emotional songs that look deep into his own psyche and his own personal issues. He has a gift for writing and putting together unforgettable music. Though this has been present in his previous albums, This Old Dog shows DeMarco at his peak.
Thank you for reading this edition of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Written by: George LaBour ’17