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Is Mac DeMarco stripping himself bare, or are we just getting better at deciphering his lyrics? The eccentric indie rocker who has always reveled in subtlety opens his latest, “Salad Days,” with the surprisingly direct observation, “As I’m getting older, chip upon my shoulder, / Rolling through life to roll over and die.” It’s a theme that is carried throughout the album’s 35 ephemeral minutes, and DeMarco sounds as vulnerable and resigned as ever through his psychedelic gauze.
Harmonically, “Salad Days” sits comfortably within the straightforward guidelines of indie rock, only occasionally tapping into the amorphous freedom of what DeMarco has himself dubbed “jizz jazz.” The time-stopping “Chamber of Reflection” pits a groovy baseline against slithering vocals, introducing the minor key to the album for the first and last time. In a way, the simple and musing DeMarco that appears on “Salad Days” is a far cry from the cigarette-smoking drag queen that starred in the video for 2012’s “My Kind of Woman,” but it is only the instrumentals that point the two down separate paths—thematically, DeMarco retains many of the same ideas that he explored on his previous studio album, “2.”
Most of the tracks on “Salad Days” explore the perennial feelings of longing and restlessness, but DeMarco puts so much distance between the heavy-hearted lyrics and the carefree instrumentation that the resulting juxtaposition comes off as quaint at worst. On their own, neither side feels particularly unique—the laid-back groove that opens “Goodbye Weekend” could easily be the stage for a sickly sweet delivery from Zooey Deschanel, its thematic material a carbon copy of Smash Mouth’s “Stoned.” But DeMarco effortlessly turns the pedestrian chorus (“If you don’t agree with the things that go on within my life, / Well, honey, that’s fine, just know that you’re wasting your time”) into a soaring surf guitar solo, and the track instantly becomes triumphant rather than trite, meticulous rather than mindless.
In the context of the rest of the album, however, the surefooted “Goodbye Weekend” is tinged with uncertainty. “Salad Days” features a confused DeMarco who splits his time between offering conciliatory advice to nameless acquaintances and delving into his own tangled mess of emotions. The former version of DeMarco stars in “Brother,” murmuring, “Take it slowly, brother, / Let it go, now, brother.” Three tracks later, on “Let My Baby Stay,” he plays the opposite role as he laments, “As far as I can tell, she’s happy… / So please don’t take my love away.” In stark contrast to this year’s other indie rock superstars (such as Sun Kil Moon, who sounded short on time throughout the entirety of “Benji”), DeMarco uses the gas pedal sparingly on “Salad Days,” allowing the tracks to breathe and transition subtly as he assumes different characters.
Breaking away from the mundane is the album’s major antagonist, and DeMarco’s heroic efforts make him an excellent protagonist. The largely uneventful “Brother” is transformed in its final minute into an effects-laden symphony that evokes Tame Impala more than it does any of DeMarco’s previous work. The acoustically driven “Let My Baby Stay” goes from tepid to intriguing when DeMarco abandons his simplistic laments for wordless wailing—the primal vocalizations don’t present the most welcome digression, but they at least save the track from complete anonymity.
Sometimes, entire tracks serve as divergences from the album’s sound palette, which revolves heavily around metronomic drum beats and DeMarco’s fabled $30 guitar. The simple and repetitive progression of the album’s first single, “Passing Out Pieces,” is remedied in part by a similarly repetitive but entrancing wash of what may be best described as electric harpsichord. But ultimately, these moments of brilliance are too few and far between to save “Salad Days” from sounding static.
In a way, DeMarco has found his comfort zone. The 11 tracks on “Salad Days” serve as mile markers on a circular track, marking musical growth and exploration but ultimately lacking the dynamicism to capture the listener’s attention for any significant period of time. “Salad Days” concludes with the looping instrumental “Jonny’s Odyssey,” whose fuzzy baselines and twangy, untuned guitars combine to produce what is possibly the most charming track on the album. The last thing we hear on the album is DeMarco saying, “Hi guys, this is Mac. Thank you for joining me, see you again soon. Buh-bye.” In the end, it feels a little silly to call “Salad Days” a tedious album, given the casual nature of everything that seems to emerge from DeMarco’s head. To the 23-year-old songwriter, “Salad Days” is the mile marker, and the trip has only just begun.
—Staff writer Se-Ho B. Kim can be reached at email@example.com.
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