“Treat Her Better”, and “Go Easy”: the voice of pleading fights down that of advice in Demarco’s latest release.

Mac Demarco’s Salad Days has been, strangely enough, a joy to listen to. If I were a music critic, I’d try and fail to describe the playful self-awareness, the almost-total coincidence between irony and sincerity, etc. I can’t describe musical form too precisely, but suffice it to say, it’s tailored extremely well to the album’s content. And the content is stunning – or would be, if it didn’t have so many layers of irony and alienation covering it over.

In this case, that’s a good thing. The album starts on a note of alienation/isolation from one’s past: “Salad days are gone… Always feeling tired / Smiling when required / Write another year off / And kindly resign.” It’s a true sentiment, and a tough one for the listener three years out of college, thrown out into the world (one of Heidegger’s long compound words would do nicely here). The fact Demarco seems to have so much fun singing about the long ebb of his glory days adds a nice tension: the upbeat tone and downbeat lyrics presage a divide in the midsection of the album, a divide between (you guessed it) a rather resigned, suffering man and optimistic words of advice which, if followed, might help him out.

Structurally, it’s something of a chiasm – optimistic ‘we can move past the doldrums’ Mac speaks to doldrums Mac over the next three songs. “Blue Boy” starts off the album’s defining second-person voice, showing compassion for the titular depressed adultescent, advising him to “Come down, sweetheart / And grow up.” Can advice get the post-“Salad Days” kid out of his rut? The first clue that something more might be needed comes on “Brother”, in which the Advisor takes the form of an older brother, urging his younger one to come home: “You’re better off dead… How could it be true / Well it’s happened to you / So take my advice”. Sound familiar? The advice to come home – good advice – is belied by peremptory, repetitive guitar; what should be a message of compassion takes on an ethereal, almost-otherworldly quality. And intentional or not, the allusion to the parable also suggests that Big Brother’s advice may not be heeded, may even be misguided.

The next track is more or less an almost-moralistic appeal to individualism and the promise of self-actualization; “Let Her Go”, the title, about sums it up: “if your heart just ain’t sure / Let her go.” Finally, however, good advice meets an immovable object: the human will. “Goodbye Weekend” serves as the album’s brilliant thematic crux: Sunday morning, with the preacher’s moralistic, if well-intentioned, advice marks the end of leisurely play. The schoolmaster’s back, but ineffective: “And what they’re preaching / Is sure to change me / Should re-arrange me / Or so they thought”. The album works, in a sense, as a chiasm: suffering person –> advice to help him get out of his rut –> moralism, which doesn’t work; good advice from the second-person, the older brother, the preacher, the true internal ‘ought’, simply doesn’t work. So where does the album go from there?

Again, keep the chiasm in mind. After “Goodbye Weekend”, “Let My Baby Stay” strikes the first note of emotional earnestness. In “Let Her Go” Mac took the voice of the Law speaking to the sufferer; in “Let My Baby Stay”, he slips back into the sufferer’s voice, speaking now back to the Law: please, let her stay. “So please don’t take / My love / Away”. It’s a brilliant inversion; after the Law meets the limits of human willpower (“should re-arrange me / or so they thought”), a plea for mercy is all that remains.

The next song is a detached, self-conscious rumination on the speaker’s fragmentation – “Passing Out Pieces” (of me). To me it’s one of the weaker songs, musically, but it works in the track order; the elder brother, the minister, and his “baby” are all drawing from him; he’s passing out pieces to different, often-conflicting voices in his life. “Treat Her Better”, another bluntly-titled track, goes back into the second-person moral voice to express exactly that sentiment. The new law is less principled than the old “Let Her Go”, appealing to self-interest: “Treat her better, boy / If having her at your side’s something you enjoy”. A practical line if ever there was one. The next track, “Chamber of Reflection”, hints that maybe he couldn’t keep her after all (“You’ll run with better men / Alone again”). And after reflection, he ends again with a plea for mercy, in another high-water mark for the album, “Go Easy”. It’s worth quoting at length:

Down here can be tough / Without your friends beside you… So when you’re feeling rough / I’ll be right behind you / To pick you up / Until you come around / So please / Go easy with my baby / Please go easy.

Returning to the persistent theme of alienation, what’s our speaker been alienated from? First, happiness – the good days are gone; then, he’s alienated from the way he actually acts, giving himself advice; then, he’s alienated from his willpower, from his own ability to change. The lyrical ending on “Go Easy” finally presents him as alienated from mercy, but it’s a new alienation, one which faces outward and pleas (“please…please”). It’s a more honest and ultimately more hopeful alienation than the life-advice earlier, but starting out from a place of ennui, he has to go through all the (ultimately moralistic) advice, sacred and secular, to come to the limits of willpower and reach a place of dependence on the unnamed addressee.

So advice for today: “grow up”, “go home”, “Let Her Go”, and “Treat Her Better”. For that matter, consume less MSG. Eat only free-range. Do community service, “re-arrange” yourself – thought, word, and deed – based on that voice in your head telling you all the things you could be doing better. But when Sunday morning comes, and the promises of re-arrangement seem burdensome – or, for the irreligious, when the promise of “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” loses its savor in your “island solitude” (Stevens), maybe it’s time to stop self-advising (it won’t work) and start making requests. We may feel alienated from the good life or the right one, but please, for heaven’s sake, “go easy.”