Mac Demarco is a wonderful fixture of the indie music scene these days. He’s easily the funniest person in indie rock (the Pitchfork mini-documentary is hilarious). He self-records / produces all his music and plays all the instruments on his albums. He’s been with the same woman, who we can subtly track through his songs about her, since he was a teenager. He’s an immigrant (from Canada), he’s invited any willing fan to come to his house for coffee, he puts on a good live show and he’s well-liked. He also carved out a niche for his woozy, pitch-controlled guitar work alongside simple, clean drum and bass arrangements that never feel cluttered, putting the onus on his strong melodies and songwriting abilities to do the heavy lifting, which they do. 2 is typically the fan-favorite Mac album, although I thought 2014’s Salad Days was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year – so much so that I gave it album of the year honors in the Rice Thresher.
Mac never fails to put together a mix of fun, catchy jams and slower, sweeter, blissed-out guitar tracks – even his 8 song EP, 2015’s Another One, contained some classic songs. Lyrically, though, he’s more of a mixed bag. His lyrics are never awkward or off-putting, but rather safe, simple, and surprisingly conventional for a guy who does interviews lying between two men on the ground. In short, you don’t come to Mac Demarco albums for lyrics. This Old Dog at times feels like an attempt to remedy that in some way, but always winds up back in Mac’s wheelhouse. He’s not really attempting to break new ground in any sonic way, aside from perhaps a slight uptick in synth usage and arrangement. The drum machine that opens the album on “My Old Man” is as experimental as Mac goes, and it succeeds in spades. “My Old Man” is the album’s best song and a sign that a little deviation would have done the album wonders. But the song’s subject matter – Mac feeling more and more like his estranged father – is the sound of someone who no longer wants to write songs about cooking meth, smoking cigarettes and courting Vancouver prostitutes (although those songs all rock are my three favorite tracks off 2).
The record follows with the gentle but psychedelic title track, which moves into the crowded space of Mac Demarco love songs about his significant other. The song is classic Mac and features some really nice guitar and synth sample panning, but delivers the album’s primary sentiment with relative simplicity (“This old dog ain’t about to forget / All we’ve had and all that’s next / Long as my heart’s beating in my chest”). “For The First Time” falls into this camp as well, and uses the shimmering 80s synths we heard on “Chamber of Reflection”. “One Another”, a catchy and upbeat number, musing on what a breakup must be like, could have fit perfectly on Another One not because the titles are so similar, but because Another One featured eight songs examining love and relationships. “Dreams From Yesterday” and “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes”, back to back on the album’s B Side, both feature the tropical clicking of a wood block, the latter also making good use of harmonica, but don’t pack memorable choruses or guitar lines. They are followed by a song called “One More Love Song”, as if Mac knows there are a surplus of them on the record and is promising us that this is the last one.
All in all, This Old Dog is never unpleasant, always chill, if not lacking the signature distorted guitar rock song that other albums have featured. But, and I hate to say it, Mac basically wrote the same ten songs he has on his last two projects, without much to show in the way of development. Sure, you could point to that drum machine on “My Old Man”, or the acoustic piano and careful harmonies of “One More Love Song”, or even the 90s smooth R&B vibe of “On The Level” and say ‘look, he’s trying new things!’ and I’d slide every other track on the record into a playlist with songs from Salad Days and Another One and you wouldn’t know the difference.
The closer, “Watching Him Fade Away”, about watching his father die from afar (physically and emotionally), is, lyrically speaking, the best song that Mac has ever done, and hints that mining his personal life in a little more detail (“The thought of him no longer being around / Well it sure would be sad but not really different / And even though we barely knew each other / It still hurts watching him fade away”) would pay dividends. But otherwise, This Old Dog just throws less memorable and catchy tracks on to the pile of love songs and ‘I guess I gotta be an adult now’ songs that Mac doesn’t seem to know how to stop writing. Going in, this sorta felt like the album where we’d assess if Mac was a real pioneer and trailblazer in indie music or if he would go off in the Real Estate direction where you make the same album every two years until people get bored and forget why you were acclaimed to begin with. This Old Dog is unfortunately strong evidence for the latter case. It’s still a fine album to play as background music, driving music, chilling music, but not really in contention with people who are actually doing something interesting.