Albums / EPs, Reviews

Album Review: Mac DeMarco – Salad Days

Mac DeMarco is a divisive character if there ever was one. His raunchy persona has been written out like…

 

Mac DeMarco is a divisive character if there ever was one. His raunchy persona has been written out like a Nabokov novella: at any one time he could be playing the part of a irresistibly precocious man-child, the Lolita, or the part of the deeply depraved yet utterly charming lecher, Humbert Humbert. Both roles are equally and differently beguiling, leaving an innocent listener utterly complicit whichever way we spin it. Thus, Salad Days could be approached with caution and in full remembrance that “there is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.”

Adored as he is, naming his sophomore long-player Salad Days – as if those times are now a part of his past – was both intriguing and alarming. It hasn’t necessarily meant a complete departure from the lewd, yet winsome idiosyncrasies that have inspired masses of his fandom. If anything, it does nothing to refute the possibility that he’ll still be making crass and undesirable associations with buttholes and drumsticks on stage. However, that some sort of change has occurred is an irrefutable fact – he’s getting older and he’s got a chip on his shoulder, as he intones on the eponymous album opener. His maturation has resulted in an altogether honest, emotive and refreshingly gimmick-free album that has real lasting power. He might still be wearing the signature beat-up baseball cap on his head like a reluctant crown, but there’s a different air with which he wears it these days. His repertoire’s been built, he’s shed a couple of skins and it’s difficult not to like what we’re seeing. 

It’s abundantly clear that even the perpetually shameless DeMarco is not immune to disenchantment with a life under media scrutiny. Following 2012’s excellent 2 his own reputation as a coked-up caricature of himself has since ballooned from out and under himself. You’d be hard-pressed to hear about his music without the ardent interest in the in the state of his windowless front room, his over-fondness of cigarettes or how often he’s changed his clothes that week (not very often, in actuality). Newly frightened of the intimacy that’s lost in gained popularity, his response is the lead single, ‘Passing Out Pieces’, which is delivered in his inimitably laid-back and conversational style.  The rather delightful blaring horn section is belied by his cynical musings of, “passing out pieces of me, don’t you know nothing comes free.” 

It has resulted in DeMarco sounding his most down-to-earth and direct. He’s once said that however serious his songs may appear to be, “there’s always a little tongue in the cheek.” And he hasn’t strayed very far from that assertion. Tracks like ‘Brother’ and ‘Goodbye Weekend’ could stray into public service announcement territory with quotable lines like, “You’re better off dead, when your mind’s been set from nine until five” and “So don’t go telling me how this boy should be living his own life”, yet it’s always tempered by the gentle irony in his lyrics and style. His general fuck-it-all attitude has given way to the acceptance that incertitude is inexorable and he’s taken it all in his stride. “Sometimes rough, but generally speaking I’m fine,” he quips on the latter; a well-worn defence that may be the only one he’s ever liable to give. 

Arguably, DeMarco’s greatest asset could be how his brand of romance walks the delicate tightrope between charming lover-boy and sleazy seducer in a way no-one could have thought so enchanting. This is a tendency that seems to go back as far as his high school days and his work as Makeout Videotape. On ‘Chamber of Reflection’ he fully ekes out his R&B crooner alter-ego. In a brand of psychedelia that has been particular to artists like Connan Mockasin or The Flaming Lips, ‘Chamber of Reflection’ licks slow and steady towards a sensual end. His lamenting echoes of “alone again” cut through the kick drum and flaring synths like a hot knife through butter and for just that moment he becomes an indomitable creative force.

Salad Days amounts to much more than the sum of DeMarco’s collective quirks on the tender tracks that he has dedicated to his longtime girlfriend. “Half-of my life, I’ve been an addict. So please don’t take my love away,” he croons in the lovesick, glockenspiel-adorned tune that is “Let My Baby Stay” – part-plea and part-prayer to no-one in particular, but mostly hungover-lullaby with his eyes half-lidded. It is perhaps a companion piece to the guitar-jangling ‘Treat Her Better’ later on in the album. The song is stripped down, lyrically-driven and rings true with an aching sincerity in his gravelly and sometimes sweet voice. The obligatory series of meow’s, la’s and pitchy whoopee’s towards the end of the track is Mac DeMarco at his most endearing.  

It may be partly shed of the demo quality of previous records, but Salad Days is still decidedly homegrown. Though fewer, there are still those instances of his letting the recording run over and conversations and snapshots from the salad days – of which he seems to be so fond – float out, unbidden like tobacco smoke, to intermingle with our own. There’s almost the crackle of rolling paper in the subtle buzz between each song;  it creates a space for us to come in and horde with him. Frankly, there is no fault on this album. Though a short body of work, every piece is melded quite perfectly and happily together. 

There’s almost a sense of loss at the end of Salad Days, like the metaphorical parting of DeMarco from days of yore; it is not dissimilar to the moving on of a remarkable stranger you’re sure you’ll never see again. Thankfully, DeMarco assuages our fears at the end of the instrumental outro, ‘Jonny’s Odyssey’, with a cheeky, yet humble recording of himself assuring us that he’ll see us again with a cheeky “buh-bye” spat out of his gap-toothed grin. Yes, his work will always be rife with apologies to his mother for the innumerable and unknowable ways he thinks he’s hurt her. Yes, he does chain-smoke a few too many cigarettes and get butt-naked on stage every now and then. If that would justify the fleeing of skeptics they’d be sorely mistaken. This album seems to exist outside of himself. It carries an undeniable air of permanence to it; a universal truth that stretches far to join us together.

It sits cosily and proudly amongst a music collection.  An immeasurable comfort rests in the fact that, in those moments when days long past seem to have floated too far out of our grasp, Salad Days will always be within our reach to bring us a little light and a little comfort. 

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