There’s a great scene in a recent Mac DeMarco video where the young Canadian plays his song “Let My Baby Stay” while pacing slowly on a treadmill in a public gym. He’s wearing one of his many yacht-casual hats, a white t-shirt, dark pants and what appear to be low-cut Vans, and he’s gently strumming an acoustic guitar. Without hearing the song, one could be forgiven for assuming it’s probably very silly, but “Let My Baby Stay” is as tender and sincere a ballad as you’re likely to hear in 2014.
Alongside a signature guitar sound and clever songwriting finesse, DeMarco has built his name on these sorts of antics (the extent of which often surpass the treadmill scene) and a persona that’s hard to pin down. Perhaps, like me, you first encountered DeMarco in drag. Or was it him getting whipped in a faux S&M act by Beach Fossils’ Dustin Payseur? DeMarco’s nascent profile in indie rock is littered with detuned behaviors and one-liners, the off-kilter edge to the softer balladeer inside. He scans as an affable troublemaker as easily as he does an emotionally nuanced observer, a conceit that has only enhanced his profile since debuting with Rock and Roll Nightclub in 2012. And where many artists and their handlers might find this perception disparity troubling, DeMarco relishes it, noting that it provokes listeners to consider more than what’s on the surface—deceptively simple guitar pop, skater humor, that sort of thing.
“The album is one thing—that comes from me sitting in a room alone for a long period of time, and maybe comes out more personal,” DeMarco says a few days prior to departing for South America, continuing a tour schedule that’s hardly abated since 2012. “In public, not to say that I’m completely lying about who I am, but it’s a completely different side of me. Being around people brings out completely different colors. But the way it’s portrayed on the internet, in video interviews and shit, it’s me being the crazy guy, and then they listen to the album and they’re like, ‘what?!’ ...To make people double-take early on in discovering our shit is useful in some way.”
DeMarco’s new album, Salad Days, may cause even his most ardent fans to double-take. It’s true that his breakout effort 2 contained plenty of earnest moments, not least the closer “Still Together,” which ends not with music but a gentle DeMarco waking his longtime girlfriend Kiki, who’s been sleeping in the same room where he recorded the love song about their relationship. (DeMarco writes, records, mixes and masters everything at home in the bedroom that he shares with her in Brooklyn.) But the core of 2, the main attraction, is that odd, swampy, quarter-step-off guitar sound and how DeMarco flexes it on standouts like “Ode to Viceroy” and “Cooking Up Something Good.” 2 ultimately scans as a party record, “sort of dad rock-y but not completely,” he tells me, whereas Salad Days is far more reflective and intimate, a document of DeMarco’s personal life in the midst of unrelenting demands wrought by increasing success.
“A lot of the album is about that and weird things that have happened in the last two years of constant touring and changes that I’ve decided to deal with,” DeMarco says. “It’s all shit that I’ve been able to cope with, especially putting it on paper and proclaiming it the world.” He says this with a soft laugh, perhaps self-aware of how his vulnerability scans on the heels of a conversation about mock sex tape personas.
This last bit brought me back to the treadmill. I’m almost certain the scene isn’t meant to be picked apart, that’s it’s just another humorous blip in the weird world of Mac DeMarco. But it also conveys something poignant about the songwriter’s hectic existence: Perhaps he’s forced to multitask just to keep that gap-toothed grin above water. “Watching my life pass in front of my eyes,” he sings on the psych-addled “Passing Out Pieces.” “Hell of a story, or is it boring? It’s all I’ve seen that can’t be wiped clean. It’s hard to believe what it’s made of me.”
The same theme beckons within seconds of Salad Days’ opening. “Always feeling tired, smiling when required, write another year off and kindly resign,” he sighs on the titular track. But a key to understanding DeMarco’s M.O. here lies a few lines earlier, in the chorus, when his mother gently admonishes him: “Oh dear, act your age and try another year.”
“The whole album has weird, kind of bummed-out, defeatist advice on it,” DeMarco says. “But, for example, on ‘Salad Days,’ the verse lyrics are going on and on about, like, ‘aww man, fuck, you know, I’m fucked. This is, like, fuck, I’m missing the old days.’ But then the chorus is like, ‘smarten up you little shit, come on.’ So it’s me double-checking that I’m not feeling jaded in a way, or bummed out or something.” Earlier in the interview DeMarco checked himself in a similar way, noting that Salad Days is in part about counting his blessings, a reminder that the grind of the road, press obligations and increasing expectations are worth the outcome of making a living as a musician. The advice, in other words, is for DeMarco himself, present and future. “It’s a huge privilege,” he says.
That sense of reflection blooms in the Salad Days sound too, though primarily in subtle ways. DeMarco’s breezy, intoxicating guitar playing retains center stage, and, for the most part, these songs still conjure the surf and sand, or a summer yard party that drifts long into the night. But look closer and you’ll see a more stoic, ruminative DeMarco, who at 23 sounds as if he’s felt more of life’s grit in the last two years than he necessarily cared too. Salad Days is far from a dark album, but songs like “Let My Baby Stay,” “Brother,” and “Chamber of Reflection” convey a palpable melancholy nonetheless.
Mac being Mac, though, the record finishes on a high note with the ebullient instrumental “Johnny’s Odyssey,” a shrewd reminder that DeMarco is far more interested in smiles than frowns. “I felt jaded sometimes when I was recording it [Salad Days], but then it’s like, ‘wait a minute you little punk, like shut the fuck up,’” he says, his intrinsic buoyancy a ready salve for the creeping wistfulness. There are many shades of Mac DeMarco, after all, and boredom is never an option.