Mac DeMarco isn’t pushing an agenda, nor does he think himself the bearer of some timeless message. He doesn’t fetishize novelty over accessibility, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously; actually, whether he takes himself seriously at all is an open question. The instinct that such a person couldn’t possibly be an indie-rock-writing Williamsburg inhabitant proves correct: DeMarco lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which is a little to the southeast.
DeMarco is perhaps the all-time least pretentious recipient of a Pitchfork “Best New Music” accolade. He seems amicable and easygoing almost to the point of immaturity—a flannel-clad native Canadian who takes every opportunity to flash the gap-toothed smile that every reviewer is obligated to mention at least twice. On 2, his stellar and irreverent full-length debut, DeMarco’s music was as breezy as his persona, drifting from the best song ever about off-brand cigarettes, to bluegrass-tinged instrumentals, to pleasantly demented love songs. But just because he hadn’t channeled the indie seriousness that has, in all fairness, led to some stunning music (see Fire, Arcade) wasn’t to say that DeMarco couldn’t. His new album demonstrates as much, and to great results. 2 was a fun ride, but the fun can’t last forever, and with the shimmering, melancholy Salad Days, DeMarco finally gets around to growing up. Sort of.
The ease with which DeMarco’s lyrics treat the well- worn theme of impending maturity is actually one of the album’s most striking features, especially over the first five songs, which can be listened to as a pep talk from the singer to himself on the subject of leaving his youth behind (this might be a hard sell for some listeners— DeMarco is 25). The first lines of the opener and title track “Salad Days” lay out a rather glum prognostication: “As I’m getting older, chip upon my shoulder/ Rolling through life, you roll over and die.” But on “Blue Boy,” the next track, DeMarco chides himself for such an outlook: “Calm down, sweetheart, and grow up.” “Brother” finds DeMarco caught between his two selves, tempted to continue sulking but at the same time prodding himself to buck up: “It’s still up to you, to take my advice,” he sings to a listener who could only be himself, before the song slides into its rippling, barely sung chorus. On “Let Her Go,” DeMarco prepares himself to cut ties, and “Goodbye Weekend” delivers the bittersweet verdict from a singer resolved to leave behind
the youthful nonchalance of the weekend. So yes, DeMarco is grudgingly growing up, but on his own terms: “Don’t go telling me how this boy should be living his own life,” he instructs the world at large.
After writing extensively on how unassuming the album’s author is, it might constitute backtracking to call Salad Days a concept album, but Mac DeMarco’s new album is certainly “about” something in a way that much of modern rock isn’t. It does, though, overlap notably with Real Estate’s recent and gorgeous Atlas. Both are introspective albums from artists previously thought not to have a care in the world; both touch on aging, distance, and insecurity; both are built from simple, clear guitar melodies polished until they shine like strands of liquid mercury. But while Atlas succeeds by being so goddamn sad that listening to it is only marginally less heartbreaking than not listening to it, DeMarco’s sophomore album is remarkable for how little the bummer that is adulthood seems to bother him. He declares on the album’s second verse that “salad days are gone,” but he names the album for them anyways. Despite sometimes “acting like my life’s already over,” as he puts it on the title track, DeMarco doesn’t let getting older get him down; the shots of pathos that give the album its weight are tempered by a singer who seems to take them all in stride. DeMarco’s eventual optimism is the source of the album’s sanguine tone: “It’s sometimes rough,” he admits on “Goodbye Weekend,” “but generally speaking I’m fine.”
Lyrics aside, it’s just hard for an album to be sad when it sounds like Salad Days does: tuneful and chiming, easy but precise. At the heart of that sound is DeMarco’s guitar. It’s not that he’s a virtuoso; he’s not bad, but in truth nothing he plays on Salad Days is particularly technical. Somehow, though, the fluttering double stops and delicate bends that he coaxes from his mildly fuzzed-out and wonderfully battered instrument sound simultaneously fresh and timeless, stepping lightly over the idea that there is nothing new or worthy to be done with an electric guitar. I’m not sure what year exactly his playing brings me back to, because whenever it was, I certainly hadn’t been born. DeMarco’s fretwork quietly recalls those masters who knew enough never to show how capable they really were: B.B. King, Johnny Marr, Eric Clapton. On 2, DeMarco leaned more towards rubbery leads that tensed and relaxed,
occasionally spiraling into fits of dissonance, but this time around his playing is more restrained and even more melodic, tracing delay-drenched arpeggios in lock step with warm, lazy vocals reminiscent of John Lennon.
In fact, with DeMarco’s pleasant strumming and signature tone guiding Salad Days from start to finish, it’s a wonder the album doesn’t get monotonous—yet it doesn’t, because DeMarco is a fantastic songwriter. His ear for simple melodies must be the envy of every other musician in Brooklyn; it’s the envy of at least one here at Yale. When his label asked for a lead single, he wrote “Let Her Go” almost out of spite, almost just to prove how facile such songs were—and yet it’s a sublime burst of sunlit, melancholy pop. The long, steady note he hits during the chorus of “Go Easy” is all the more beautiful for how obvious it must have been to him. DeMarco puts more faith in his voice here, singing longer and more confident melodies, and his guitar fades slightly to the background (unlike on 2, his ax isn’t featured on the album art). “Passing Out Pieces,” another of the album’s singles, is driven instead by a jittery clavichord and DeMarco’s dark musings during the chorus.
You wouldn’t be wrong to see Salad Days as a promising musician moving away from his traditional strengths: a goofball getting serious; a guitar player giving up solos (though he does take a nice one on “Goodbye Weekend”). But you would be wrong to see this as a bad thing, because being a goofball guitar player was never the essence of Mac DeMarco. Plenty of goofball guitar players, perhaps even the majority of them, are still living in their mom’s basement at DeMarco’s age. There’s nothing on paper that sets him apart from them. But once you hear his music, it becomes clear why he has his own house and they don’t. Mac DeMarco possesses the purest form of the rarest ability a musician can hope for: he can tell what sounds good. That’s how he takes a brand of rock that might be uninteresting in someone else’s hands and shapes it into his own instantly recognizable sound. Salad Days isn’t flawless: from time to time during its 35 minutes of smooth guitar noodling, I find myself missing 2’s salvoes of electrified nastiness, and, after all, “Ode to Viceroy” from that same album is still DeMarco’s best song. But by allowing him to mature without losing his spark, DeMarco’s simple musicality makes Salad Days a winner—with a little help from his gap-toothed smile.