Family. Over the years, the importance and values which we ascribe to what family is have changed. It’s ranged from the ideal of the nuclear family–two parents and two children–to a bond that doesn’t necessarily need blood to bind people together. Family can come from love, from friendship or indeed from those we share genetics with. And while family conjures up warm, happy memories for some, for others those they’re related to can be toxic and distant. Family’s a tricky thing to tackle, but it’s the key focus on Mac DeMarco’s third studio album, This Old Dog.
Take for example the very first track, “My Old Man.” It’s a tale of DeMarco looking in a mirror one day and realizing that he’s becoming more and more like his father. It’s the struggle of thinking you’re your own person, but realizing how much unseen influence your family has had on you. This idea of examining family from DeMarco’s personal experience, which is not often straightforward and represents complexities of a real life family over the platonic ideal of one, runs heavy through the album. It’s found in the melancholy brevity of “Sister” or the musings of emptiness on recent single “One More Love Song.”
Another thing that is immediately evident throughout the album is DeMarco’s amazing craftsmanship when it comes to his music. DeMarco is one of the most technically capable musicians putting our material right now, and it shows. Like his previous efforts, DeMarco did the entire writing and recording process largely by himself. Every song is perfectly constructed, balanced, mixed, and carries the relatable charm of Mac DeMarco the human being. From the opening synth of “My Old Man” to the closing synth dropping out on “Watching Him Fade Away,” there’s nothing out of place on the album.
Most songs are just DeMarco with an acoustic guitar and a drum beat. While he does use a synth to fill out many of the tracks, it never moves away from the cozy intimacy of DeMarco’s storytelling. Demarco’s voice has always carried a homey, inviting tenor to it, and giving it more room to shine was a smart move on his part. It works especially well on this album and its emotional significance. “Baby You’re Out” is downright plucky in sound with nice major chords and a little bass line that bops along while DeMarco sings of the decidedly unplucky topic of looking back at the “could haves” and “should haves” in your life after it’s far too late to do anything about it. Same thing goes for “One Another,” a swinging guitar tune about the rocky move from broken romance to friendship. It’s these little quandaries and gray areas of life that DeMarco lives in on This Old Dog, and his candor throughout is striking.
Another great choice made on the album was making each song short and to the point. All but the seven minute penultimate track “Moonlight On The River” are at, or under, four minutes long, and many are under three. I have nothing against some long tracks, but in this case, the abbreviated running times drive the emotional impact home quickly before ushering the listener into the next track. “Moonlight On The River,” while sonically interesting as the most electronic of the album’s 13 tracks, feels meandering compared with the rest of the songs.
The album ends on “Watching Him Fade Away.” Where on the first track DeMarco sees his father in himself and is put off, the closing track forces him to watch as his father withers toward the end of his life. It’s a song without an easy answer; as DeMarco sings his first instinct is to chew his father out over their estranged relationship. At the same time, he acknowledges that there is pain in watching his dad struggle, even after years of icy distance.
This contrast between the opening and closing tracks is a good encapsulation of what This Old Dog has to offer. Life is hard, and family can be harder. There are no right answers out there, and sometimes conflicting emotions happen all at once inside your head. DeMarco knows this and has used his skill as a musical craftsman to capture it on an album. No one can offer answers, and DeMarco isn’t necessarily looking for them. He’s just telling the story of his family the best he can.