If you live out loud online long enough, you reach a point where people decide to take you out for a walk and see what you’re made of. It’s discouraging having your ideas and intentions scrutinized and distorted. You start to feel like a politician, permanently aware of the exact number of people who do and don’t like you, the extent to which they do or don’t, and the reasons why. It’s wearing people out; it’s come up a lot in interviews lately, the brutality of the court of public opinion. No one with an audience is above being challenged or questioned. In a perfect world, this keeps the discourse healthy. In a gruesome, fallen world, it leads to a lot of the old coliseum-style bloodlust.
Mac DeMarco had his turn in the meat grinder in March when he announced the impending studio album Here Comes the Cowboy with a song called “Nobody,” where he played mutant lounge lizard country music in a literal reptile costume. Everyone who heard it assumed it was a crack on the reigning indie-rock album of 2018 — Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, also anchored by a song called “Nobody” — and people either chuckled or took Mac to task for darkening Mitski’s door with his antics. DeMarco swears he hadn’t heard the Mitski album.
DeMarco has become the mascot for a certain brand of tuned out, turned on, emotionally vacant festie bro thanks to his party-boy image and woozy, jam-adjacent slacker rock tunes. His persona is a mix of kitsch and genuine self-destruction that people never quite knew how to process. Some laugh at it; others laugh with it. Mac himself seems exhausted. In ten years, he drifted from Edmonton to Vancouver to New York City, and then far away from it. He now lives with his longtime girlfriend in a house in Los Angeles that he’s built to be a work space and chill space. He wanted to fly under the radar this year.
Here Comes the Cowboy feels like a hangover, in both mood and pace. The tempo is jarringly slow from the start, when the title track sets out a plodding country groove, and DeMarco intones the name of the album once per measure, like a theme song. The album’s cowpoke theme goes out the window with track one, though. This isn’t Mac DeMarco’s country album, and it isn’t a crude prank on indie-rock fans. If anything, Mac’s “Nobody” draws from the same well of self-deprecating gloom as the Mitski song it shares a name with, capping off the album’s first proper verse with the singer calling himself “another creature who’s lost its vision.” Later on the album, “Finally Alone” yearns for quiet and anonymity: “Sick of the city, locked in with all the pretty people / You need a vacation, somewhere that no one ever would dream to go.” “Little Dogs March” seems like a playful tune about a pet until you realize the lyric is about proverbial dog days being over.
It sounds like Mac DeMarco is tired of playing the character of Mac DeMarco and fielding the expectations and responses that come with it. Notoriety’s a monkey’s-paw curse; the more people become aware of you, the more people swear they have you figured out. It’s impossible to make a move without alienating someone. Some folks find peace in that; if there’s no winning everyone over, there’s no burden to try to impress them all. Others agonize.
Here Comes the Cowboy splits the difference between downcast folk-rock grooves that linger and lurk like 45s played at 33 RPM and short, impactful lyrics about letting go and embracing change. Sometimes they’re profound, and sometimes they’re not. “Hey Cowgirl” talks a partner into a new living situation that costs her the comfort of the open country. (“Hey cowgirl, sure as hell ain’t no stars down the dairy aisle.”) “Choo Choo” undercooks and oversimplifies the same theme of travel and companionship. “Baby Bye Bye” spends several minutes mourning a breakup by repeating its title. Here’s the Cowboy seems depressed, but it knows where its lifelines are. Listening to this gorgeous but uneven batch of sad songs and slow songs, you hope the writer is using them to work through whatever’s bugging him, not to relax in its grip.