“And the old hippie?”
“The old hippie’s out there somewhere, yeah. Gives me a call every once in a while. ‘Hey, I heard your song about me, kid…”
“Did he say that?”
“And what did he think?”
“[I said] Just wait until you hear the rest, buddy.”
That is an excerpt from Mac DeMarco’s recent interview on WTF with Marc Maron. Maron is known for his very conversational approach to interviewing, and he and DeMarco laugh throughout the conversation – even when discussing DeMarco’s absent father, the overarching theme of DeMarco’s (technically third) full-length LP, This Old Dog. This attitude is reflective of the album. If there’s anything DeMarco is known for, beloved or despised for, it’s his onstage persona and antics. From vulgar classic rock covers to interviews with his mother, DeMarco’s goofball personality is almost certainly what strikes you first and foremost, but it’s his undeniable penchant for vintage guitar and synth sounds that keeps you invested.
When I interviewed DeMarco during his world tour for 2015’s mini-LP, Another One, there were no antics to report. He seemed tired, extremely polite nonetheless, but above all, away from the stage lights and cameras, he seemed like a normal person. For the first time in five releases, this is the DeMarco that bleeds through on This Old Dog. He seems simultaneously more open and reserved than ever before, addressing deeply personal themes (primarily regarding family) within the confines of his typical jangle-pop/indie rock fare.
Sonically, the songs are refined here; in fact, most of which can be boiled down to DeMarco with a drum machine and acoustic guitar. Occasionally, a new instrument gets added to his arsenal, such as the steel guitar on “This Old Dog” or the harmonica on “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes,” crafting semi-experimental highlights that stay with you long after the album’s end. Elsewhere, songs like “For the First Time” and “On the Level” (a spiritual successor to fan favorite “Chamber of Reflection”) shimmer with DeMarco’s best use of synth in his entire catalog, the former conjuring images of candlelight and rainy nights while the latter bounces like a walk through a bustling city on a hot summer day.
This is DeMarco’s “mature” album, a label some will surely scoff at before actually honing on the emotions he’s conveying. While the dark and stormy indie rock of Salad Days approached topics like homesickness and romantic peril from the perspective of a 23-year-old, DeMarco is now (more or less) approaching 30. His calls for self-reflection and a longing to settle down now feel more appropriate than ever. These songs are reeled in and less compulsive than those of his early career, an approach first attempted (but not mastered) on Another One.
Some songs, such as “Dreams From Yesterday,” feel sketch-like, their instrumentation having more in common with DeMarco’s demo albums than his studio LPs. But this is less of a complaint and more of an observation about how DeMarco’s attention to detail has shifted over the past five years. The obsession with distorted vocals and strange sounds has lessened over time, along with DeMarco’s need to represent his trademark persona within his music. Each of these interlude tracks feels like it belongs here, and when we arrive at a song like “Moonlight on the River,” the masterful, seven-minute penultimate track, there’s no question as to whether DeMarco is still capable of arranging the kind of complex, psychedelic experiments many expect from him.
As an album, This Old Dog feels meticulous and less bombastic than its proper predecessor. From a worrying glance at the mirror to letters to his estranged sister and father, these songs sound sweeter, but cut deeper, than anything else DeMarco has written. When he claims, “Honey, I cry too/You better believe it” on “Still Beating,” we don’t have to try hard; the vulnerability is not lost on us. When the album concludes with the lines, “And even though we barely know each other/It still hurts, watching him fade away,” over recognizably warm keys, the growth DeMarco has experienced since writing odes to cigarette brands makes him almost unrecognizable.
This Old Dog is a bid to placed among the greats. It may not get him there alone, but as his best and most mature album to date, it certainly begs comparisons to DeMarco’s heroes and their opuses (primarily Neil Young’s Harvest). If I had to guess, DeMarco and company will still perform Metallica and Limp Bizkit covers from show to show. He’ll still be bombarded with cigarettes anytime he performs “Ode to Viceroy” live, and yes, this album will likely be described as “weird fishing music” (or something along the lines) by a number of listeners. But if This Old Dog is any indication, the once-dubbed “prince of indie rock” is handing in his slacker-pop crown for something more transparent, more visceral and something that fits just a little bit better.