Sunday, April 6, 2014

album review: 'salad days' by mac demarco

One of the biggest tropes in comedy is observational humour. You know the stuff, the material that fills the acts of the late George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, and Louis C.K.. The moment-by-moment notes about the little things in life in life that are quirky or odd or out-of-place, the things that might seem inessential until you dig into the reasons why we do them. And this sort of observational style shows up in other art as well, for obvious reasons: observing the normal world around you allows outlets to create plenty of stories, and implying depth in said stories can take elements that everyone can relate to and make them seem a lot bigger than they are.

And I'll be honest: with few exceptions, the sort of music that works through 'observational commentary' doesn't do a lot for me, especially if the tone of said music is more muted and mundane and actively seems to avoid drama. Sure, it's often effective in creating atmosphere and critics will eat this material up for its immersive factor and its relatability, but music that coasts by on mellow observations just does not interest me, especially when the 'insights' it presents aren't remotely revelatory. And that's not saying music about suburban or rural life can't be interesting - far from it, Arcade Fire, Lorde, Sun Kil Moon, and a whole slew of country artists have proven that wrong time and time again - but a slice of that sort of life without deeper commentary or insight often for me comes across as small-minded, bland, and rather pretentious.

And really, that was my first reaction when listening to Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco's debut album 2, an album that I don't really dislike but nearly puts me to sleep every time I listen to it - which, for the record, is not a good thing. Sure, the melodic progressions were interesting and the production was pretty solid, but with the too-smooth guitar tones, DeMarco's half-stoned delivery, and the lyrics that had some decent text but sparse subtext on suburban life, I just could not get invested in that record. It might not be strictly in the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' genre, but the tone and delivery of the album definitely fell into that category in trying to come across as having depth when there really wasn't much there, either through delivery or lyrics.

So why the hell did I pick up his follow-up album Salad Days? Well, call it curiosity, if you want, because buzz was suggesting this would be the album where the 'laid back bro grows up'. Now this was the same defense I heard used for the new Real Estate album, but given DeMarco's taste for weird melody lines, I had the hope that something on this record might be able to grip me - was I right?

Ehh... it's okay, I guess. At this point I'm fairly certain I can make the judgement that Mac DeMarco just isn't my kind of music, but even evaluating it outside of my own distaste for his brand of lightweight indie music, I don't really think Salad Days works. I'm not going to say it's bad, because it's not, but when viewed as a cohesive whole - or, on a similar note, as the filpside of the coin to his debut - it doesn't really hold up. 

And really, viewing it as a companion piece to that first album makes a fair bit of sense, because Mac DeMarco really hasn't innovated much in terms of his sound between albums. If anything, his melodies have simplified or at least become less experimentally jarring - and you know, I didn't mind that, as a more conventional songwriting structure does fit the thematic element of normalcy he's trying to cultivate. And there are still plenty of the elements that make DeMarco an interesting instrumentalist - the guitar strumming has texture, the sycopation between the bass and the guitar is impressive, and the production is still quite good in picking up whatever texture it can glean from the smoother guitar tones. On the other hand, as if to balance out the muted organ undertones he interjects these synth lines that sound imported from a late 70s synthesizer on songs like 'Passing Out Pieces' and 'Chamber Of Reflection', and it's a really unflattering clash between them and the guitar lines. And while more of the songs do go for a more somber vibe, it's hard to shake the overall mellowness of the record that does dampen any emotions one way or another.

That somberness is the element that likely most characterizes Salad Days, as it takes the darker undercurrents that hid between the lines on 2 and moves them to the forefront with DeMarco's trademark honesty and weariness. And this definitely shows up in the lyrics with more than a few songs about heartbreak and loss and moving on, especially when you have the knowledge the relationship is doomed on songs like 'Let Her Go', which might be an odd fit for an upbeat song but it mostly works here by focusing more on the time spent together than the separation. And there are moments in the songwriting that I thought had some fun commentary, most notably on the song targeting alpha bro masculine posturing in 'Blue Boy'. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this album is also occupied with larger commentary on the underlying bleakness of mundane ordinary life, starting early on the title track with lines like 'Write another year off and casually resign'. Or, to put in better words, 'Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock', right?

Okay, I'm not going to compare Mac DeMarco to his critically acclaimed Canadian counterparts, but a look at Arcade Fire's masterpiece The Suburbs only highlights the problems with Mac DeMarco's commentary on 'normal life', most of which begins in the framing. As much as his listless inertia is captured in his delivery, there's an underlying sourness in songs like 'Brother' that really bothered me, which attacks that whole '9 to 5' lifestyle from an outside vantage point - and look, you're not going to find a harsher critic of that kind of lifestyle than me, but by placing himself away from the situation, you lose some empathy for him. And 'Goodbye Weekend' furthers this problem, which seems to act as the response to 'Brother' but comes across as willfully ignorant and not willing to hear about better possibilities. And yet even with that, the level of commentary is paper-thin and lacking in the detail to stand out - a problem of which I think DeMarco is aware, as he says in 'Passing Out Pieces', 'Hell of a story, oh, is it boring?'. But that song comes across as a little weirdly defensive as he tries to articulate that he's giving of himself by telling these stories and goddamn what everyone else thinks.

And to be fair, with the right delivery, this could work - and here's where we come to my big issue with this record. And the frustrating thing is that I get what DeMarco was going for, and there are points where it works - but he is such an inert presence on this album. If the instrumentation hadn't already dampened your feelings, DeMarco's delivery completely squelches any emotion or empathy I have towards his material into a soft middle-ground. And it does makes sense - if he's looking to evoke imagery of the sullen bleakness of middle America, he does a good job - but it's also a curse in that it really neuters any emotional attachment I have towards the material. On top of that, his falsetto and upper range is along the lines of Mark Foster's for being damn close to unbearable for me - personal preference, I know, but it doesn't exactly help him here.

Look, I get DeMarco's appeal and relatability - and with this album, I've come to the conclusion it just does not work for me. Don't get me wrong, there are ways to work in little emotions and mellowness or even reveal the darkness and existential emptiness beneath it, but DeMarco does not nail it here. His material is still consistently underwritten, his honesty is compelling until you realize he's not really saying anything all that potent, and his presentation is too inert to even sell those little emotions and make them matter more than they do. That being said, I can't even get angry or worked up about this album, mostly because the instrumentation is mostly solid and there are snippets of wit here that I did like. So overall, with the acknowledgement that this guy just isn't for me, I'm giving this album a 6/10 and only a recommendation if you're curious. And as for mellowness concealing depth... you know, I'll stick with Jimmy Buffett. The man might be silly, lack dignity, and have written some utterly ridiculous songs, but he also gave us 'Margaritaville' and 'A Pirate Looks At Forty', and I'll take them over this.

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