Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Van Hunt has collaborated with John Legend, Joss Stone, Dionne Farris and many others. His 2011 album What Were You Hoping For? reached both Billboard’s Top 50 R&B/Hip-Hop and Heatseekers charts. His new album The Fun Rises, the Fun Sets is out now. You can follow him on Twitter here.
(Photo credit: Stefania Rosini)
Writing this piece has been hampered by a dirge. My uncle, the man I called Bob Cat, died yesterday. For someone who sang often, he never sang as well as we wished he could, but every performance was slyly proffered with a wink and a smile. Mac DeMarco has a similar glide to the way he delivers his gifts. I hear it when I listen to his charming new album, Another One. I’ve no hesitation in crowning DeMarco “the Mozart of the 2010s,” since he’s a burgeoning genius who also drags along a scatological humor. The sparkle of his talent is used as an entreaty to good mischief, not as solicitation for acknowledgment of high art. As a result, there’s an ease to his expression. The laziest comparison I can make is John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” era, although Lennon was more self-convinced and produced material that was more forceful. Songs such as “Instant Karma” used the political spark of their time to create larger fires than DeMarco has thus far felt the need to do. However, the juxtaposition is apt. Lennon stretches his legs, comfortably, all around Another One. The album’s perfectly rationed eight songs are fused with the slap-echo, plate reverb and quiet-train amble that was the fabric of Lennon’s — and Harry Nilsson’s and Marc Bolan’s — 1970s.
Shuggie Otis, a lesser-known, black recording artist from the same era who built a complex network of sound around the cornerstone of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, is also an influence on Another One. Otis’ Inspiration Information (1974) became a less-traveled route to Prince’s earliest work than the main line excavated by Sly Stone. With each toothy grin of his love songs, DeMarco encourages himself to be as funky as Otis. “Just to Put Me Down” has a wavy guitar duo that orbits the vocal in dark energy and leaves behind a tail of pedal steel. A press of Wurlitzer piano comes in, just to make the point that star systems always make more room for cloud layers. But, despite a sameness in their mood-setting, there is a stark contrast in the levels of comfort between Mac DeMarco’s falsetto and Shuggie Otis’ moan: moaning is what you do to keep from crying. But, during one climactic vocal trill, you can almost catch DeMarco giggling — innocently so — yet it’s still a disclosure that he can’t help deflecting brilliance, as if he knows that by settling into compliments, he runs the risk of being loved for all the wrong reasons. Mac DeMarco is sexy, but he can’t be sexy without laughing at himself. “The Way You Love Her” lives in a future where Jimmy Buffett is cool, skewing the album’s intentions to read more like the dormitory genius of the Beatles than the earnest and serious artistry of Shuggie Otis. Yes, Mac DeMarco would have us believe he bares his private thoughts for fun — or sonic experiment — and hasn’t ever suffered to the point where he had to moan just to remind himself to breathe.
I don’t buy it.
There are various levels of urgency, and Mac DeMarco fails at hiding his intensity. He knows “black” music has always left the nuance unspoken while heating the rhythm until it bumps up through the surface and speaks in a way that only those who can feel it in their bones can understand. As it was once illegal for them to learn to read or write, black people had to communicate physically what couldn’t be uttered verbally. Likewise, DeMarco is also tasteful and subtle and clever with sharing his stories, even though “white” music has never had to be afraid to show how smart it is, often boasting a zeal for over-articulating nuance and happily shedding the instinct to sniff for danger in the unknown. Curiosity is a fairly modern luxury — to have so few predators that you’ve the time to ask, “Why?” With such leisure, musical innovation has been enticed to surrender the insistence, intuition, suggestion and messaging coded in rhythm. It’s unfortunate, because it is precisely that soul-saving escapism which moves your mid-section when your brain can no longer take the strain of this life. The relief is like a long, strong suck on a Popsicle in hell. But follow the cascading “Without Me” all the way down to its refrain and you will conclude that DeMarco knows how to shimmy. Some of the best music — a record such as Another One, for instance — meets somewhere in the middle of our racial slough, having been tossed into a soup that bubbles with the fears and carefreeness that became the ’70s concept album of American intersectionality.
I found myself singing along with “A Heart Like Hers.” It’s my favorite number on the record — its musical deftness lightly tip-toes past DeMarco’s self-consciousness. This is a song that will shake the tempers of other soul singers, believing that DeMarco has encroached upon their territory and drilled into their frozen market. But the music belongs to anyone who can access its formula and create mysteries with it. DeMarco does that, and quite frankly, he does “soul” better than Lennon, and he is doing it better than most so-called soul singers today. If they want to challenge that, then let them challenge him on wax, because talk is cheaper than melodies. And DeMarco has a head full of expensive melodies. They ride on top of ’80s L.A. soul with a Motown chassis. And with the analog tape carrying his rangy voice on its back, it’s easy to imagine the warmth and accessibility a child will feel when listening to this album. Some will run their fingers along the veneer of its twinkling playfulness. Others will be paralyzed by the determined musicality that sneers at them from behind it.