Why Mac DeMarco Should (But Won’t) Win the Polaris Prize

By Jack Derricourt

Mac DeMarco, Polaris Prize 2014

Polaris season is upon us. The long list has become a short list, and soon the short list will become the shortest list possible: one. There are plenty of good Canadians up for the award this year. Am I playing favourites? Of course I am.

I have never cared much for awards. When I was slated to receive the English Literature award at my high school, I stayed home and watched movies with friends. The whole nature of award culture seems too political and far from the true value of hard work — that tingly feeling in your gut when you know you’re good, damn good.

I’m here to preach to Mac DeMarco’s tingly feelings, all eleven as they stand in playing order on the masterful 2014 release, Salad Days. The title of the record comes to us by way of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which is enough to send me into fits of literary glee; but there’s a whole lot more going on here. At times the record is truly unique, avoiding classification like a champ, processing wistful nostalgia with brooding promises for the future.

The record begins and ends with Mac’s voice. The title track is an upstart groove, yet for an opener to begin with a smooth vocal phrasing is bold and intriguing. The tracks shift and wander as they play out, producing a soft spoken account of life as an anxious human being, coupled with a bag of guitar effect tricks that are singular. The album has a playfulness at its core, and the trip it takes you on is a tender, joyous one. Mac’s final farewell at the end of “John’s Odyssey,” ten tracks later, demonstrates how personal this sonic journey has been: you’re safe at home with Mac, and he’s glad you’ve joined him along the way. These elements of personal voice on the record are declaritive: this record is meant to be familiar, confessional. This is not a grandiose Arcade Fire record. It’s something better.

The range of sounds featured on the album make for strange dinner guests — we are talking salad fixins here, after all. The wooden block work on “Let My Baby Stay” creates a space akin to a kindergarten classroom: sweetness oozes from the slick clicking of the blocks and Mac’s beguiling pleas. On the other side of things, “Passing Out Pieces” follows directly, wading through Abbey Road synth pomposity and flair. The songs share a similar sentiment, yet take entirely different approaches to a confession.

The record stands out in the landscape of 2014 guitar pop. It’s carefully crafted, and demonstrates Mac’s range as a songwriter while staying fixed on powerful themes. Anyone who ever said the man was nothing but a dick joke and a guitar has got a thing or two to learn, and Salad Days is the gospel that will set the truth free.

Now, a sad prediction: DeMarco will not win the prize this year. We were very lucky that the committee offered the Polaris up to Godspeed last year, a truly alternative voice in Canadian music. It is unlikely that our conservative music industry will award its highest commercial recognition to a flat-capped, lewd, tender-hearted troubadour, no matter how varied his musical output might be from his live antics. Salad Days is an incredible record, that can be revisited again and again, always gaining something in the next deep listen — but that’s not what awards are about. The winner this year will more than likely be someone tidier, someone more timid, and someone who’s on a different kind of Odyssey than the Mac.

“…My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…”

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