In sidestepping solemnity and keeping things light, Mac DeMarco has become known nearly as well for his affable persona as his jangly brand of slacker rock. The Canadian singer-songwriter has built a cult following as the kind of reckless goofball who, at the end of 2015’s Another One, gave out his physical address in Queens and invited listeners to stop by for a cup of coffee—and then made good when hundreds of young fans did exactly that.
And yet, rather than simply giving his adoring fans what they’ve come to expect, DeMarco’s third album, This Old Dog, finds him periodically ruminating on bigger questions than generic feelings of ennui contrasted by upbeat melodies. In shifting away from his lush psychedelia-tinged arrangements in favor of slowly strummed acoustic guitar and gentle, glistening synths, the singer goes smaller and more intimate with his sound, an approach which yields both poignant and melodramatic results.
Regret nags at DeMarco, especially over his prickly relationship with his father. On the opening track, “My Old Man,” he contemplates his own reflection in the mirror, lamenting the physical toll a lifestyle of gleeful beer-guzzling and chain-smoking can take (“the price tag hanging off of having all that fun”). As a result, he fears he’s beginning to physically and mentally resemble his deadbeat dad, a described alcoholic who left him at the age of five. While that track focuses on a painful past, DeMarco remains forward-looking on the sparse, magnificent closer “Watching Him Fade Away,” where he wonders if he should visit his ailing father for one last chance to “tell him off right to his face.” The song is DeMarco’s complex articulation of the emotions that stem from witnessing the physical decline of a parent he barely knows.
By instilling This Old Dog with such introspection, DeMarco creates a tonal inconsistency when he reverts back to less consequential sentiments. As he sings of missing his longtime girlfriend while she’s out of town on “For the First Time,” he sinks into woeful hyperbole by claiming that without her by his side “simply being alive’s been rough,” the twinkling synth only heightening the schmaltz. The 27-year-old too often sings about “this old heart” of his and the low-stakes trouble it gets him into. The title track finds him quipping, “Often a heart tends to change its mind,” and on “Still Beating” he falls into outright breakup-song cliché about wearing his heart on his sleeve.
DeMarco is far more adept at using his penchant for well-worn lyrics to defy expectations, like he does on the upbeat breakup song “One Another,” as his narrator puts a failed relationship into perspective and concludes that it’s actually without togetherness that happiness can be found. Similarly, on “Moonlight on the River,” a sullen meditation on death, he sings of feeling least comfortable while at home, again returning to the difficult relationship with his father and bluntly stating, “I’d tell ya that I loved ya if I did.”
While DeMarco’s music has often suggested the flow of drifting lazily down a river, This Old Dog finds the singer unafraid of pausing and immersing himself in the existential mire that his life has become. “Just trying to keep it light sometimes casts a shadow,” he sings on the jaunty “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes,” and though it’s encouraging to see him explore the darker side of his life, This Old Dog too often feels thematically muddled.