This Old Dog, the third album by the likable indie songsmith Mac DeMarco, seems personal, bookended as it is by two very different songs about an emotionally distant dad. But it’s also proof that a musician can mellow out too much. Stripped of the jangling, psychedelic influences, and off-beat glister of DeMarco’s previous full-length albums, 2 and Salad Days, This Old Dog has a clean, light weekend-afternoon sound. Perhaps it’s meant to recall a classic singer-songwriter studio album in the Jackson Browne vein, but it ends up sounding a little too close to mid-1970s-to-early-1980s Jimmy Buffett, minus the twangy country influence. (“A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes” is a very Buffett-esque song title, too.) Fortunately, DeMarco is still a gifted songwriter (the opening track, “My Old Man,” is a small gem) and his singing voice has only gotten better. But as This Old Dog relaxes more and more into its pleasant, folksy Silver Lake dad-rock template of acoustic strumming, clean electric guitars, and unobtrusive bass lines and electric pianos—with, yes, the occasional harmonica—its breeziness becomes a liability.
With his gap-toothed smile and baseball cap, DeMarco has always brought to mind someone’s well-liked stoner boyfriend. But despite this aura of perpetual good vibes, there is a tinge of anxiety to his best songs. Their quirky positivity has more to do with performance—for when DeMarco sings, it sounds as though through a smile—than with the lyrics. (Salad Days itself opens with, “As I’m getting older / Chip up on my shoulder / Rolling through life to roll over and die.”) Aside from the slightly funky standout “Baby You’re Out,” This Old Dog is his least energetic record, even when it comes to something as stark as the closing track, “Watching Him Fade Away.” On this song, DeMarco offers one of his most plainspoken confessional lyrics: “The thought of him no longer being around / Well, sure it would be sad, but not really different.” As always, there’s something remarkable about the way the singer-songwriter resists the sound of bitterness. But the simple keyboard accompaniment, which is easy on the ear, makes “Watching Him Fade Away” feel like a pulled punch.
If there’s an ethos to DeMarco’s music, it’s this idea that people write songs and listen to songs for completely different reasons—and, generally, they write them because they feel angry or sad and listen to them to feel good. Playing to this notion, This Old Dog is a pleasant album to listen to. But its songs can be hard to tell apart; gone are the watery George Harrison-esque guitars and the vocal filters of the earlier DeMarco records. From a comparative standpoint, the second half of the album is a little more interesting. “Sister,” just barely over a minute long, backs his voice with a warbled guitar that sounds like it was recorded to cassette tape and then left on the dashboard of a car on a sunny afternoon; the similarly sparse “Dreams From Yesterday” makes evocative use of a vintage drum machine; and the highlight, “Moonlight On The River,” uses a slow, glimmering synth line to add a sense of space to an album that otherwise brings to mind open windows and rattan chairs.
None of these songs rank among DeMarco’s best melodies, but like the winning Salad Days bedroom-pop exercise “Let My Baby Stay,” they meld vocal style, lyric, and arrangement into something that feels authentic. One thing DeMarco could never be accused of insincerity; he is very unpretentious. On this very earnest effort, his easygoing nature may have gotten the better of him: He’s made a laid-back album that is probably best listening to lying down, halfway into a nap. But that doesn’t sound so bad, does it?