Just like Future Islands last week, Mac DeMarco is also an artist whose live show becomes impossible to separate from his songs and his persona. In a perfect world, each copy of Salad Days, his sophomore LP, would come with your own portable Mac DeMarco to keep you company while listening to the collection, cracking self-deprecating and just barely-not-creepy jokes about his own songwriting.
The fact that it becomes difficult to talk about DeMarco without incorporating his persona, or more likely fixating on it, points to the singular problem in his recordings; they are as forgettable as they are pleasant in the moment. The live show brings Mac DeMarco a complete and round presence that is captivating, but based on just Salad Days, it is hard to imagine anyone being really affected by a listen without either knowledge of DeMarco’s concert presence or having witnessed it themselves.
If that’s the case, the rather chilled-out Salad Days will probably sound more muscular than the wooziness that defines most of the LP, a haze that works for much of the subject matter, with the title track mentioning “rolling through life, to roll over and die.” DeMarco doesn’t say that maturing is giving up explicitly, but in quoting his mom saying “act your age” and moments like the buzz-killing noise blast that ends “Brother,” DeMarco has no interest in fitting in or making things easy on listeners. Or as he says on “Goodbye Weekend,” “Don’t go tellin’ me how this boy should be leaving his own life.”
It’s rebel music for people with nothing really to stand for, a call to arms for simply the state of being young. For the suburban slackers who feel so much and don’t know where to harness that energy, it’s a tip of the floppy retro rest-stop ballcap, a gesture in solidarity. It’s also an ethos better displayed in a covers medley than on an album of influence-hopping bedroom rock. On “Chamber of Reflection,” DeMarco pulls an Arial Pinkish, synth-driven (and by “driven,” I mean the song is like a big rig on an album of Volkswagens) monstrosity out of that previously referenced ironic hat, arriving late enough in the album that both fans and detractors can share a knowing glance, each thinking equally that the other must know they are wrong.
But it isn’t hard to like or appreciate DeMarco, like is isn’t hard to imagine why others would find his meowing and scatting and never-too-ridiculous falsetto patronizing to the point of infuriation. The mid-album diversion to the Caribbean, “Let My Baby Stay,” is a lovely aside that seems like it could almost be a personal moment (though endearing, it is always hard to take him seriously when he calls himself “Macky” of all things) and shows both DeMarco’s talent and his biggest flaw: in crafting a lovely, no-context-needed effective song that feels like a timeless standard, the audience is always waiting for the punchline. The music never seems to come from a place of desire to convey something true or honest from within DeMarco, but instead it paints variations of past emotions, interpret others’ honesty, gives a distorted remembrance of the past for a more entertaining present. This is art that is confidently immature, and it begs the question: why can’t sophomoric art still be great? And maybe it can, but DeMarco still seems limited in the heights he can achieve through schtick. Many of his forbearers, Jonathan Richman or Stephen Malkmus, gave us lyrics beyond songs about their “baby,” and DeMarco still has some years to go before he can be considered in those songwriters’ company. At 23, maybe the most impressive thing is that he is hanging onto adolescence so tightly. The likelihood is that when he releases his immaturity, he will make something truly great. He seems like a sure-thing in this light and will leave a lot of people claiming to have seen it coming all along. How far it is away, though, is anyone’s guess, and for now a kickass concert will have to suffice.