In a crowded field, few in the alternative music community in 2017 have as distinctive a trademark ‘sound’ as Edmonton’s Mac DeMarco. Arriving now at his third full-length studio effort, the pieces have been put firmly in place over the past five years: lazy, aching, elongated guitar notes, cameos from harmonica and keyboard, Mac’s own gentle, wistful vocals and a nostalgic flair for melody. On This Old Dog, all of the above are back in force, with the tempo turned down to walking pace. For DeMarco’s music, walking pace is perfect.
‘My Old Man’ gets the album off to an aptly ambling start – an un-rushed but deceptively meticulous arrangement over which Mac sings about the escalating horror of looking in the mirror and seeing your father. For many of us, that is an all-too-real phenomenon, but anyone who heard his recent interview on WTF with Marc Maron knows the particular difficulty that this might present for Mac.
The bulk of the album is comprised of a sequence of effortlessly pretty and melodic sub-three minute tunes, the standout of which is the album’s title track. Those irresistible, twanging notes have space to stretch out, and Mac’s vocals call to mind some of Stephen Malkmus’ more relaxed moments or the great Alex Chilton. ‘For the First Time’ revels in the same energy, but this time propelled by another part of DeMarco’s regular arsenal: a sparkling, laser-clear synthesised keyboard lead (see also: ‘Chamber of Reflection’). “Just like seeing her for the first time again,” is the hook and the synth line does indeed suggest someone opening their eyes to sunlight after a deep slumber. That crystalline synth re-emerges on ‘On the Level’, an 80s revivalist number that wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack to a film like The Guest.
Elsewhere, ‘One Another’ opens with an ascending scale that could be a tribute to ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’; ‘Baby You’re Out’ might push the simplicity to prohibitive levels; and ‘Sister’ is a 78 second track that sails perilously close to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’, which is a lawsuit that none of us can afford. This run of songs is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience, and Mac’s facility for composing such sweetly enticing earworms is seriously impressive, but one wonders whether any of these songs will stick in the memory a few years down the line.
There are moments here that strike a more serious tone, however. ‘Dreams from Yesterday’ is fuelled by a sadness that is not nostalgic melancholy, but something altogether more raw and confessional, a pregnant bitterness lingering through lines like, “It was you who denied them and no amount of tears can roll back all the years”. So many of his songs see Mac ostensibly talking to a second character that one wonders whether he is, in fact, trying to converse with another part of himself.
The album’s centrepiece is the seven-minute ‘Moonlight on the River’, a song that conjures a clear visual image of Mac sitting on the bank of a river near his childhood home, midnight mist rising from the water, Mac staring into the distance, daydreaming (or, if you will, nightdreaming). It is, in many ways, the quintessential DeMarco track, until, that is, a bad wind blows into the track and screeching ghouls impregnate the air. Perhaps Mac fell asleep on the riverbank and we are sharing in his recurring nightmare. It is the one moment on the album that will throw you out of your comfort zone.
You likely already know whether Mac DeMarco’s ways work spells over you or not. This Old Dog does little to make radical departures from the formula. The pacing is perhaps more consistent this time around and he turns the spotlight on himself more than previously, but essentially this is another fine entry in an already charming and endearing career.