Music

With “This Old Dog,” Mac DeMarco Shows You Can Teach an Indie-Rocker New Tricks

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Mac DeMarco, the Canadian singer-songwriter and current Los Angeles resident, is the latest iteration of an endearing archetype. Picture the best friend in a mumblecore movie, offering casual profundities over a cold beer. You might also think of Elliott Gould’s chain-smoking detective in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, with his mush-mouthed catchphrase, “It’s OK with me.” Or a disheveled Harry Nilsson in his bathrobe on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson. Or Jonathan Richman’s wry troubadour in There’s Something About Mary. Maybe one of those Zen stoners who loiter amiably around the edges of Richard Linklater movies. (DeMarco sticks to cigarettes but people keep offering him weed anyway — he has that vibe.) The kind of low-key charmer whose sloppy affect conceals a sharp mind and whose air of ironic amusement is no obstacle to sincerity or empathy, but who won’t really care if you take him at face value and miss all that. DeMarco makes shaggy, convivial records that you want to hang out in. Or not. It’s OK with him.

With This Old Dog, his third full-length studio album, the 27-year-old complicates the picture. Five years ago, DeMarco was known for cheerfully puerile live shows in which he played goofy covers of classic rock songs and displayed a fondness for shucking off his clothes. The cover of his full-length debut, 2, practically begged listeners to label him a slacker — DeMarco, in a plaid shirt and trucker cap, flashing a peace sign and a gap-toothed grin. One of the album’s standout songs, “Ode to Viceroy,” was a love song to his favorite cigarettes. He recorded the whole thing in his underwear.

But DeMarco’s prankster man-child reputation eventually wore thin, and he’s been getting more philosophical and vulnerable with each record. This Old Dog should emphatically set straight anyone who still considers the musician nothing more than a laid-back bro. For all its perky drum machine rhythms, quivering synthesizers, and warm, winding guitar lines, it’s an album with a lot of weight on its shoulders. Sometimes DeMarco is the benign voice of wisdom, soothing a string of tormented friends with instructions to go with the flow. “Don’t dream of all the ways things could have been,” he counsels on “Baby You’re Out.” “Hey, kid,” he sings on “One Another,” “everybody’s prone to some mistakes/If you always kept to straight you’d never learn.” They’re more than platitudes, because his voice, soft and worn like old shoe leather, sounds like that of a guy who’s had his fair share of screwups.

And DeMarco has been there before. This Old Dog derives its surprising new power from the mass of the singer’s own baggage. The opening track’s cry of “Uh-oh, looks like I’m seeing more of my old man in me” is about more than the common experience of seeing the flickering ghost of your father’s face in the mirror. DeMarco’s dad was an alcoholic and addict who left the family when Mac was four — DeMarco recently described him, not entirely without affection, as “kind of a piece of shit” — so the singer’s genetic legacy is complicated. At the other end of the record, “Watching Him Fade Away,” which sounds like Paul McCartney playing a water-damaged organ, considers that same father’s waning health with puzzled ambivalence: “Even though we barely know each other, it still hurts watching him fade away.” DeMarco has talked about his father in interviews, but by squarely addressing their painful relationship in song he casts his whole back catalog, and his reputation for messiness, in a sobering new light.

Like his emotional range, DeMarco’s musical horizons have broadened. After the locked groove of 2015’s water-treading Another One, This Old Dog meanders between smudged soul (“One More Love Song”), stark minimalism (“Sister”), D.I.Y. bossa nova (“Dreams From Yesterday”), the playful swing of Paul Simon (“One Another”), and yacht rock on a dinghy budget (“For the First Time”). DeMarco’s never recorded anything as unnerving as “Moonlight on the River,” whose eerie narcoleptic glide is steadily engulfed by a swarm of noises reminiscent of dub reggae and bad dreams, as the singer’s exhausted croon, just one notch above a murmur, evaporates completely. You wait for one of his usual reassuring resolutions, but it never comes.

DeMarco has always had the kind of shrugging charisma that makes him easy to like but equally easy to dismiss as a lightweight: wacky, whimsical, half-assed, simplistic. This Old Dog screws with those low expectations, revealing untapped depths beneath his chill everyman image. Not that he pretends to be any smarter or wiser than his listeners. He’s just as bruised and bemused as any of us, seeking those precious, fleeting moments of clarity that give him something to hang on to. “Don’t let the world outside the windowpane get to your head,” he sings on “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes.” “And hopefully make some sense of all this shit before you’re dead.” It sums up the whole record: a weighty ambition, modestly expressed.