For half a decade or so now, Canadian songwriter Mac DeMarco has been an intrinsic part of the lo-fi and indie-rock spheres, cementing his place with 2014’s seminal Salad Days. Serving as a radio-ready stack of creative songs to the uninitiated, and the holy grail of the cult faithful, Salad Days successfully ironed out the kinks of his first two releases, with more succinct and direct songwriting, cleaner production, and less reliance on his wacky sense of humour.
The now-29-year-old has proven time and again since to be more than just a goofball. It’s hard to move away from a tried and tested sound when you have amassed an audience that way, but 2015’s mini-album Another One and 2017’s mature This Old Dog both triumphantly delivered outside of that comfort zone. So where do we check in with LP #4, Here Comes the Cowboy?
Well, it doesn’t open well. The titular track is a slog at just three minutes, as you’ve heard all it’ll be by just 20 seconds in. Endlessly repetitive and dull, and can’t exist for any purposes other than marketing or a lost bet. Seriously, why? Anyway…
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I’m relaxed in the midst of the first single, ‘Nobody’. We find Mac lamenting on the nature of success and fame; the unseen loneliness of it, (self-describing as a “creature”) and how he may never return to his blissfully ignorant state as no one in particular. He traverses his feelings with the same enthusiasm as the bumbling chords behind him.
The chorus of ‘Preoccupied’ dazzles with some beautifully rich guitar licks. It’s also a blinding example of that ‘precision of songwriting’ I had lauded of DeMarco in recent years… yes, I’m still trying my very best to forget the opener.
DeMarco’s tribute to his late friend and fellow artist Mac Miller on ‘Heart to Heart’ is quietly poignant and euphoniously produced. Mac’s confessions and regrets are laid out for us against the playful pops of subtle percussion. “To all the days we were together/ To all the time we played apart/ In each other’s lives, heart to heart”. ‘On the Square’ is beguiling; wading in the waters of existential despondency whilst masked with a creepy, not-quite convincing sense of calm. Mac implores you to question the quality of your life over some eerie keys: “Baby, are you satisfied?/Is this all that you had in mind?”.
Next up, second single ‘All of Our Yesterdays’ should definitely stand taller than it does. A fantastically crafted would-be tear-jerker that just never quite hits that sweet spot – maybe only contextually – as the album has drawn for the heart-strings one too many times. If all of it is sombre, that lessens the impact each time around.
Shaped and paced like a musical voyage, ‘Baby Bye Bye’ is anything but. Running out of original lyrics a minute or so into its entirely-too-long seven minute run time, the following moments are filled with a festering refrain of the title and its various forms. The track then takes a short break before introducing a new part, only for that to be ‘yeehaw’-ing, and Mac laughing like Salacious Crumb over a totally non-sequitur funk-bass riff. I would give anything to be joking right now. It’s clear that he saw this track as indicative of a bigger ending, by incorporating several historical motifs of his here, like the synth key sounds of ‘Another One’, but it falls completely flat. Less grandiose summing-up of an era and more bad parody artist going through the motions.
Overall, it’s hard for a bulk of these tracks to stand out and differentiate themselves from each other. What is even more troubling is that when they do, they’re awful; hammed up caricatures of ideas or emotions. Even if it turns out that’s supposed to a meta stance on the album’s themes about fame and expectation, it’s delivered so badly that it’s almost tenuous to put two and two together. It’s also a flat-out horrible idea to sabotage your own record for what feels like a bad gag. But yes, this release completes the checklist of things you’d expect out of a Mac DeMarco album, but not in any way you’d want. It’s such a shame too, what with a few of these tracks showing signs of greatness. DeMarco definitely subverted expectations as to where he’d go following This Old Dog – but he just shouldn’t have.