Prior to the advent of indie, the creation of odd music had a place and a purpose. Odd music was made by outsiders – people whose characteristics made them different, and as a result, outcasts from society in one sense or another. Music was an artistic vehicle for revelation, rendering and expressing those characteristics in a way that manifested their underlying beauty. At its best, odd music could be both a form of protest and a form of redemption, showing how society had wrongly rejected the artist and allowing society an opportunity to welcome the artist back into the fold. Odd music is powerful stuff.
The advent of indie changed things. The concept of oddity was conflated with the concepts of novelty and quirkiness, concepts that contain the idea of difference, but without all that icky baggage about social rejection. It wasn’t long before indie became filled with quirky musicians – for the most part, attention seekers who proclaimed status as both outsiders and celebrities. Odd music was reduced from a transformative art to a kind of talisman that anyone could invoke for commercial purposes, not unlike what happened to nerd culture. This bit of history brings me to Mac DeMarco.
DeMarco’s Salad Days (on Captured Tracks) is refreshing, largely because it manages to generate oddity without quirk. This is not Zooey Deschanel, throwing doe eyes at every chance and speaking like a cartoon. Instead, DeMarco works with alternative chord progressions and instrumentation, a distinctive EQ, and vocalizing that while unique is not ostentatious – characteristics that bring to mind early R.E.M. during the IRS years. This restraint is most evident in the lyrics, which cover largely mundane but moving topics. Songs like “Salad Days”, “Blue Boy”, “Brother” and “Let Her Go” are lessons in how to deal with emotional fixation, whether it be fixation with youth, love or the future. “Let My Baby Stay” and “Go Easy” are simple pleadings for a loved one.
That said, DeMarco’s palette of sounds and textures proves to be limiting. Oftentimes, DeMarco captures oddity at the expense of movement, giving many of the songs a directionless quality that contradicts the drive of the narrative. In fact, Salad Days is at it best when he allows that narrative to shine through in the music – in particular, “Let Her Go”, with its minimalist guitar counterpoint, manages to be expressive while still capturing the atmosphere of the rest of the album.
There are lyrical limitations as well. Many of the songs feel like incomplete character sketches that simply gesture at yearning and crisis. Sometimes there is a lack of richness in storytelling that makes it difficult to enter DeMarco’s point of view, and sometimes there really just isn’t much that he’s saying. Take “Blue Boy” for instance – the song merely suggests that our protagonist is always worried, and DeMarco advises that he “calm down” and “grow up”. It’s a nice thought, and an album can handle a few character sketches thrown in here and there, but a full album’s worth of character sketches is a sign of a general lack of commitment or an inability to develop ideas further.
Salad Days is, nevertheless, an interesting piece of work. Listening to the album is akin to walking into a museum of dioramas. Curiously presented tales, revealing moments of struggle and joy, but ones that keep you at a distance, never fully letting you into their world.