Above photo credit: Monika Mogi
For a certain generation of indie kids, the jangly, wonky sound of Mac Demarco’s music is synonymous with the experience of being in your twenties: it’s the sound of drinking tinnies on the beach all day, every day, at the golden height of summer. This is unsurprising, given that DeMarco wrote his first 4 studio albums between the ages of 23 and 29. But his latest album, Five Easy Hot Dogs, out on Friday, will be DeMarco’s first release since turning 30 – a tipping point in any musician’s career that’s watched with eagle eyes (and ears).
After 2019’s Here Comes The Cowboy – a plodding, sometimes cartoonish album with rare moments of brilliance – I was half hoping for a return to the lovely gooey youthfulness of DeMarco’s early sound. But a good artist shouldn’t retrace their steps, so, failing that, I was keen to hear the curviest of curveballs – some abruptly new direction that nobody had seen coming. But Five Easy Hot Dogs doesn’t do either of those things – or, rather, it does both in a way that leaves you hungry.
A collection of short instrumental tracks, Five Easy Hot Dogs is an accidental concept album. After playing a show in the Bay Area in January 2022, DeMarco’s plan was ‘to start driving north, and not go home to Los Angeles until I was done with a record’. And so he did, recording a track (or sometimes 2 or 3) in a different city along the way. ‘The nature of ripping around and recording and traveling in this manner doesn’t lend well to sitting around and planning or thinking about what it was that I was setting out to do’, says DeMarco. ‘I didn’t ever have a sound in mind, or a theme or anything; I would just start recording’.
The result is a delicate synergy between sight and sound. With each track named after the city in which it was recorded, you get the sense that something of the place has entered the song or that the song captures the character of the whatever motel, hotel or house it was created in. With warm, bendy guitar strings, soft drums, and low-fi acoustics, it’s got a pure road trip ambience: slightly hypnotic, like too many hours behind the wheel, the album trundles from city to city at its own, lolloping DeMarco rhythm.
But for all its jazzy charm, the album feels a little too much like a sketch. The short tracks sound tantalising, like stems for a longer album – an album that might have recaptured that fizzy juvenescence – just waiting for the vocals to be overlaid. Or else they sound like a touch, like a background muzak that gets piped out in department stores (Vancouver, in particular, has the unmistakable sound of selecting carpet designs in The Sims). And while the album’s appeal lies in its meandering evocation of place, it’s a little too evident that DeMarco hasn’t spent much time ‘sitting around and planning or thinking’ about it.
In a review of This Old Dog in 2017, Mark Richardson wrote that ‘DeMarco’s problem, if you can call it that, is a good one to have – he owns his sound and continues to write songs that fit within it’. The older he gets, the less forgivable that problem becomes: Five Easy Hot Dogs is too subtle an experiment in his signature sound, leaving you thirsty for early DeMarco and tinnies on the beach.