Twenty minutes late, a tired Mac DeMarco slouches in from stage right. He scratches his impressive beer belly, leaving streaks of dirt from his fingernails. Tonight is his 40th birthday, but the crowd doesn't know that. They just want the classics. They want "Eddie's Dream." They want the covers medley. They want, most of all, some kind of outrageous story they can share with their friends. Maybe another drumstick vid?
I'm certain Mac DeMarco has been running this scene in his head. He knows that if his career ended today, the credibility of his catalogue would be debated. His previous album 2 was certainly a sequel in spirit to his breakout Rock and Roll Night Club EP. It thinned the mucky layer of broken crooning swagger, and opened DeMarco up like never before: cooking meth in Alberta, accepting his outsider status, and falling in love.
The funky, beer koozied melodies made us smile, but was it with him or at him? Would his legacy be defined within his gap-toothed smirk, or the impressive power of his low-slung, loosely tuned rock?
Salad Days, his second solo full-length album, is DeMarco asserting himself as an artist whose tunes primarily inform him, not vice versa. His wearied gaze and longing is more potent than ever, and it refines our perception of his art, unclouded by his outlandish on-and-offstage persona. His playful intuition is intact, but he's learned how to make it grimace too.
The singles leading up to the record were the first hints of a shift. "Passing Out Pieces," with its boisterous horn section and glittering synth confetti, was grander and more sullen than anything previous. "Brother" urged an end to the daily grind with a tantalizing picture of a languid beachside park — a sibling of 2 but clearly more mature.
His view on love has changed, too. No longer a source of enriching wonderment, it's now a life raft, the only thing separating him from a hungry abyss. The gentle, urgent "Let My Baby Stay" begins with "I was made to love her" and pleas with some unnamed force, internal or external, from ending that relationship. "Let Her Go" is a centrepiece of the record with its emotional vibrancy, a party of lively funk bass and twinkling notes against the prospect of a long-simmering breakup. And though it's sequenced after "Let Her Go," "Treat Her Better" feels like a warm-up for that song, as Mac tries to cut out the selfish part of his brain on flurried, disoriented guitar melodies, retaining a strong sense of grey throughout.
It bears mentioning these songs, and the entire record, aren't just diary entries. He might throw the occasional fraternal shoutout ("Hey Tony" at the end of "Blue Boy," the space-tropical "Jonny's Odyssey") but these songs swipe at that knot of despairs we carry, unique to us all. "Chamber Of Reflection," that regal, swooping beast with Conan Mockasin DNA, cannot conceal an acute inferiority complex, with no signifiers to stop the chant of "alone again" from landing directly on our hearts.
Everyone wants to be ahead of the joke. It's tougher these days. But Salad Days makes it hard to dismiss Mac DeMarco. Not for increased technical wizardry or blindly stunning moments: that grin doesn't have a Colgate smile. Instead of lowering all the defenses and baring all, he's allowed the already-present rawness to flourish with increased ambition and a unique, warming shine that finally overcomes — but doesn't undercut — all the drumstick vids and testicle jokes. It's not adulthood, just a more tuned in Mac. He won't spit on his music, but snot's okay.