Mac DeMarco went from recording music in his tiny Montreal apartment to becoming the poster boy of indie rock in just five years.
Since his 2012 debut album “2” and subsequent 2014 breakout work “Salad Days,” the Canadian musician rose to fame meteorically. Between garnering critical acclaim and becoming an American music festival staple, DeMarco has also nurtured a cult following by virtue of his quirky personality and his twinkling guitar anthems about chain-smoking cheap cigarettes and goofy ruminations about his youth.
While “2” and “Salad Days” were largely retrospective works focused on drawing moments from DeMarco’s past, “This Old Dog” – his third full-length album that was released Friday – is his first project that examines the present and future. It is a deeply intimate album exploring the themes of aging, familial relationships and the cyclical nature of love.
DeMarco has proven before that his best songs come from a place of patience and introspection. But on “This Old Dog,” he reaches new heights of contemplation by trading in his signature goofiness for a more meditative and mature experience.
From a sonic standpoint, “This Old Dog” adopts a far more subdued and mellow sound than that of DeMarco’s previous albums. The album replaces the playful electric guitars and free-rolling rock music that dominated much of “2″ and “Salad Days” with synthesizers, harmonicas and keyboards.
Moreover, “This Old Dog” represents DeMarco’s most instrumentally minimalist work: Songs such as the album’s namesake and “Watching Him Fade Away” are driven by little more than an acoustic guitar and keyboard. Boiling down the album’s instrumentation to bare essentials results in a delicate and hypnotic backdrop for the biggest evolution of DeMarco’s music to date – the vocals.
Writing clever and poetic lyrics through simple prose has always been one of DeMarco’s greatest strengths. But on “This Old Dog,” the lyrics take on a more somber tone and shine through like never before.
On the shimmering “For The First Time,” DeMarco ponders the difficulty of being away from his significant other while touring: “While she’s been away / Living day-to-day has been tough / I found her at my side / Simply being alive has been rough.”
On “Dreams From Yesterday” – a beautiful and melancholy acoustic guitar ballad – DeMarco reflects on the feeling of emptiness felt with the onset of stardom and success: “Once a life, believes it’s got it set up / A closer look reveals / Just how empty you can feel.”
The poignancy on “This Old Dog” comes through not only lyrically, but also in DeMarco’s subtle and pensive voice. On the interlude song “Sister,” DeMarco croons with a singing prowess he did not possess earlier in his career. DeMarco’s improved singing ability propels many of the album’s songs instead of the instrumentation, making the music a more emotional listening experience than previous albums.
Yet another standout feature of “This Old Dog” is its songs’ catchiness. With a runtime of just under 45 minutes, DeMarco packs each song with impactful melodies. Standouts such as “One More Love Song” and “Still Beating” are incredibly infectious with their rudimentary song structures and tightly knit melodies. The quiet verses also spill into harmonically rich choruses. On “One More Love Song,” DeMarco embellishes the refrains with streaks of pianos and backing vocals, adding to the quiet sense of catharsis felt on many of the songs.
Nevertheless, “This Old Dog” does slightly suffer from DeMarco’s formulaic approach to crafting songs. Only one song on the album – “Moonlight on the River” – deviates from the traditional verse-chorus structure, making it the most interesting and psychedelic song on the album. The predictability of other songs on “This Old Dog” does slightly undermine its nearly impeccable songwriting.
But on the whole, “This Old Dog” is a definite step forward for Mac DeMarco on all fronts as a musician. To the casual listener, it may seem sleepier and flatter than DeMarco’s previous whimsical works. But every note played and every word sung on “This Old Dog” bears an acute purpose. DeMarco takes the time to look inward and to process what has made him the indie rock icon he is today.