‘Salad Days’ Strange, Somber and Satisfying
Allie Tollaksen | Wednesday, April 2, 2014
When Mac DeMarco released his first full-length album, “2,” in 2012, the Canadian crooner received plenty of critical success and quickly gained almost cult-like indie admiration for his bizarre behavior and lo-fi, poppy tunes. A year and a half later, the misfit singer/songwriter has released his sophomore full-length LP, “Salad Days,” an intriguing 34-minute long acid trip of an album that distorts everything you love about summery guitar-pop in the curiously appealing way only Mac DeMarco could.
The most immediately noticeable element on “Salad Days” is DeMarco’s vocal presence on the track. While his first two albums, “Rock and Roll Night Club” and “2,” ring with a distant, lo-fi voice matching DeMarco’s now-notorious nonchalance, “Salad Days” gives us a much more present DeMarco. With this sharper voice comes an overall cleaner sound — a sign of a more serious musician, perhaps. Still, much hasn’t changed in DeMarco’s sound: His distinctive, affected guitar, tuned a half-step up, is still what drives each of the 11 tracks on “Salad Days,” making each song easily attributed to its writer, and almost too familiar at times.
The familiarity doesn’t stop there, either. Though it has been said before of DeMarco, with a more prominent voice on the album, the singer sounds distractingly like a cross between Ringo Starr and John Lennon at times, with “Salad Days” reminiscent of “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Magical Mystery Tour” to a near-alarming extent. If he’s been listening to 1967-era Beatles lately, DeMarco certainly knows how to wear his influences on his sleeve.
This isn’t a bad thing, per se, and the most psychedelic, Beatles-esque songs are some of the most enjoyable. The album’s title track is a toe-tap-inducing opener reflecting on growing old and growing up, a theme that continues throughout the subsequent tracks. “Passing Out Pieces,” the second single on “Salad Days,” is a somber take on “I am the Walrus,” slowing down calliope-inspired instrumentals and pairing it with a melancholic DeMarco reflecting on the toll time has taken on him. The result is a disorienting carnival song somehow still peculiarly gratifying.
In all of his music, DeMarco has the uncanny ability to combine pop and dissonance, and “Salad Days” is no exception. From unexpected progressions and warped chords to introspective lyrics over largely cheery, strolling instrumentals (as in the title track, “Salad Days”), the album sits in a precarious place between self-indulgently gloomy and amusingly cheeky, a balancing act DeMarco has worked towards perfecting in his young career.
Though much of the album reflects on aging, fame and anxieties (as so many second or third albums do), “Salad Days” isn’t a pity party. Instead, DeMarco doles out quite a bit of advice in various tracks. From “Brother” and “Blue Boy,” we’re told to calm down and take it slow, and in “Let Her Go” and “Treat Her Better,” we get boyfriend advice from the unabashedly romantic artist (he notoriously brings his girlfriend on stage and serenades her at shows).
While DeMarco laments over the demands of touring and the confusion he may feel, he also puts his foot down when it comes to things he does know. In “Goodbye Weekend,” he indignantly sings, “So don’t go telling me how this boy should be leaving his own life/Sometimes rough but generally speaking I’m fine,” and in “Treat Her Better” he knowingly proclaims, “Treat her better, boy/If having her at your side’s something you enjoy.” At times these tracks can feel a little preachy or arrogant, but when paired with lyrics expressing his vulnerabilities, DeMarco comes off as less sanctimonious than if these tracks were presented alone.
Some songs stand out and almost reach the caliber of DeMarco’s most famous and still ridiculously good single “Ode to Viceroy” from “2,” including the hypnotic “Let My Baby Stay,” “Blue Boy” and, oddly, “Jonny’s Odyssey,” the final and only instrumental track on the album. Other songs could have been omitted from “Salad Days” altogether, like the uninspired “Brother” and the painfully slow and grating “Chamber of Reflection.” Still, the album as a whole is consistently Mac DeMarco, and ultimately, to hear him apply his laid-back sound to less laid-back themes makes “Salad Days” an occasionally bizarre but overall enjoyable listen.