A puzzle can keep you intrigued. Unfinished, the mystery persists in your brain, begging to be sorted out, cleaned up, understood. Mac DeMarco has the ability to puzzle, to keep you befogged, yearning to piece everything together.
A dissonance exists in Mac DeMarco. He has careless fashion and unkempt hair, a penchant for prank antics, and drinks beer with abandon during his concerts. Yet, he has a sweet, stable relationship with his long-time girlfriend that conflicts with his apparent sleaziness. His concerts feature nudity and screechy, intentionally awful covers of Beatles classics. But he’s also written more lovely songs about his mother than any artist I know. Predominantly, his lyrics show thoughtfulness and kindness, his image hooliganism.
It hardly surprises, then, that Salad Days has a befuddling quality. The album has received rave reviews, but none of the tracks rave. “Always feeling tired, smiling when required,” he sings in the opening track. Listening to the music, one can really take him at his word. Only one track jumps with even a little upbeat energy, “Let Her Go“, and DeMarco’s record company had to battle him to write and record it after receiving the first draft of the album. If Salad Days sleeps and woozes, why such great reviews?
Part of the intrigue has to do with expectations. This album so contrasts with what one would expect colorful DeMarco to deliver, that the mystery of the shock intrigues us. DeMarco, a 23 year old Canadian indie-rocker, should be delivering high energy, melodically grabbing songs that seize and inject a shot of dopamine. He used to premise his live concerts with, “Alright here’s some rock-and-roll songs,” and then delve into a wild set. Salad Days, though, is not rock-and-roll, the album lounges.
It defies expectations. One might anticipate the album to have a grainy, scruffy, jangled quality. Nope — the recordings sound clean, polished, beautifully layered. Ok, it’s clean, so we might expect crisp guitar, but DeMarco uses some of the most absurd, cheap guitar-effects and synth sounds. “Macky’s been a bad, bad boy,” he sings humorously in “Good-bye Weekend,” a track about paying little attention to criticism about how he lives his life. He similarly cares little about expectations about how his album might sound — and does not deliver on those expectations.
For an example of the over-all lethargic quality of the album, listen to “Brother.” The track does not jump at you with even a little excitement. The melody does not amaze or inspire, the guitar hooks don’t charge, but it all just drags on. The track sounds like it could be played in a 1980’s dead-end auto-mechanic shop, an anthem to workers doing the same thing day-in-day-out for far too long. The song ends with a strange scream. What’s going on?
The lyrics offer some insight — “You’re better off dead, when you’re mind’s been set from nine until five.” This song is about the doldrum a young twenty-something sees in the 9-5 lifestyle, and DeMarco captures it as he pictures it. The scream at the end is an Edvard Munch-like scream of ennui, boredom, alienation, hopelessness. The dullness of the melody symbolizes the boredom DeMarco sees in the 9-5 life. It’s all very meta. Maybe not super amazing, but it’s a bit more sophisticated — and certainly different — than one would expect from DeMarco.
“Let My Baby Stay” has a similar intrigue. A song about his girlfriend, he sings: “Far as I can tell, she’s happy living with her Macky.” Yet, then why is DeMarco worried that the relationship will crumble? If she’s happy, if all is well, what causes him to sing, “Let my baby stay”? DeMarco displays a strange foresight and ability to imagine possible problems. He is not caught up in his celebrity, over-confident that any woman can deliver him a similar happiness. Nor is he naively content in the relationship, but actively worried that it might end, despite the fact that all is currently well. His image has a careless quality — like he’s just living in the moment and doesn’t think twice about consequences. His lyrics, in contrast, show a person considering the possibility of a more sad future, though all is currently well.
Salad Days’ popularity is a testament to DeMarco’s ability to keep people puzzled. Though the album sounds like late-night lounge rock, it somehow manages to intrigue.