Amen Dunes Crafts Freedom Into His Most Compelling Album Yet
Just shy of a decade ago, Damon McMahon—the singular lifeblood of Amen Dunes—began releasing his beguiling music. On the 2009 Locust Records LP DIA, an expression of raucous id recorded three years earlier, the first track shared his pen name. “Amen Dunes” was a mission statement: swirls of guitar, feral drumming, and the unmistakable wonder of McMahon’s voice that triangulated folk and garage through prismatic trial-and-error. When he forged his partnership with then-burgeoning Brooklyn label Sacred Bones, for Murder Dull Mind, the sheer oddity in McMahon’s marrow began to show through his whole. Released in 2010, that EP shaped improvised guitar and vocal vignettes into a protean seance, with just enough distance from the New Weird America to hint at that sound, yet avoid that catch-all. (Curiously, the record gelled during a two-year stint in China.)
But his beautiful 2012 sophomore LP Through Donkey Jaw arrived at a jargon-heavy critical moment, saddling what should have been McMahon’s proper studio emergence with hypnagogic-pop pejoratives. It didn’t help that the record obscured itself in palo santo and bong smoke—a mood piece pigeonholed for the psychedelic spelunker. The 2014 followup, Love, finally brought to light McMahon as the able auteur, mapping western gothic onto familiar terrain. Through those bright and thirsting landscapes, McMahon divined a universal essence: heartbreak, the sense of loss palpable, leaving you with nothing but sand in your boots at sunset. Followed in 2015 by the aptly situated Cowboy Worship EP, and while not quite his breakout album, Love set the stage for McMahon’s most transcendent statement yet.
With Freedom, a record several years in the works, including a Portuguese sojourn and a scrapped recording session, the statement could not be clearer: to have it all, you’ve got to let it all go. Instead of turning solely inward, McMahon turns back, grappling with a cast of spiritual antagonists from decades gone by, abbreviated into 48 minutes of 11 tracks. His departed father, German soldiers, sometimes tawdry lost loves, beleaguered surfers, glue-sniffing stalemates, saints and sinners of all stripe, bloodsuckers, believers, and a boo—it’s a boundless cast of characters populating these otherworldly, guitar-driven, synth-laden songs. There’s something for the hero and villain within all of us, here, given fresh inflections of pop and dance throughout.
And that’s the rub: by giving his all to examining his agency to others and vice versa, McMahon presents a framework for everyone shaking the pall of days past. Freedom rings as both immediate and timeless, intensely personal and easily understood. It is so often the context of the self that both puzzles and troubles us, especially when our circumstances or actions are less-than optimal. McMahon’s clarion ability to embrace who he is at this moment—and the remarkable method of conveyance—inspires that very power to accept ourselves. Even greater, it inspires us to wield our experience as an instrument of hope. “When things go black I got you,” reads an epigraph in the liner notes, a persevering line from the soul-shaking “Believe.”
In the broader context, Freedom takes a forward lateral leap, situating Amen Dunes among the likes of The War On Drugs and Deerhunter, expanding his practice and distilling his spirit. All three artists began from an experimental starting block, running far afield with obvious ambition, just needing time to sculpt their perversions into expansive, compelling rock. Though a sense of place contributes to each (Georgia for Deerhunter, Philadelphia for The War On Drugs, New York for Amen Dunes) they meet at an undeniable Americana, where an individualist spirit seeks to better serve the whole. This move feels innate for McMahon, never compromising the personality he developed through previous releases, while broadening his aperture to the horizon.
That’s admirable considering the crew he assembled for Freedom: guitarists Nick Zinner and Steve Marion, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Delicate Steve, respectively; underground Italian producer Raffaele Martriani, aka Panoram; a grip of noted session musicians; and his longtime backing duo of Jordi Wheeler and Parker Kindred. Particular credit must be given to Kindred, whose percussion is so nuanced and dynamic that it can’t be ignored as the backbone of many tracks. Legendary producer Chris Coady wrangled the project at Electric Lady in New York and Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. The production packs the wallop and refinement of a globetrotting classic, with the bonafides to back that up.
As ever, McMahon’s world orbits around his celestial voice—it warbles, it whispers, it howls, it slinks and soars, all within his timbre unlike any other. Moreover, its humanity does not waver. When he wails, “So much pain, so much pain,” on “Time,” the desperation and truth of the exposition can’t be denied. When he bleeds into glossolalia on “Calling Paul The Suffering,” it’s more epiphanic than evangelical. When, on “Believe,” he deftly drops the line, “Radio’s on and they’re playing my song/Back in 1992” the ghost of Tom Petty floats in and shades the whole album. When he declares “It’s all or nothing at all” on “L.A.” the ultimatum lands as totally obvious yet revelatory.
Freedom exalts in subtlety. It offers powerfully economical songwriting. There are no grand flourishes, no huge crashes, no broad strokes. These songs take the linear route, tracing precise throughlines, the crescendos and climaxes undulating tiny grooves into anthems of restoration. It shows a clarity of thought that considers the endpoint from the outset. Yet reason propels these songs, not rationalization. With Freedom, it’s about both the journey and the destination. “Maybe this is all,” McMahon ponders on “Dracula.” “Let’s keep it short and sweet/Keeping my brights on/We got miles to go.”