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Amen Dunes Thrives in the Zone of the Uncomfortable

On his sixth album, Death Jokes, Damon McMahon’s music has only become more claustrophobic
Amen Dunes (Photo credit: Michael Schmelling)

Amen Dunes – Death Jokes
Sub Pop

Based on recent interviews, Damon McMahon, the primary force behind the strange, contaminated folk of Amen Dunes, seems to be in a good place. Since the release of 2018’s shiny and relatively sunny Freedom, McMahon has become a father and moved from L.A. to the bucolic, bohemian wilds of Woodstock, New York. But if he’s mellowed in his personal life, his conflicted, idiosyncratic music has only gotten more claustrophobic over the past six years. 

While Freedom benefitted from the presence of a band, Death Jokes is largely a solo affair, with McMahon immersing his bleating, blurred voice in a capacious wash of synths, samples, and cutting drum-machine beats. It’s an off-putting approach, but Amen Dunes has always thrived in the zone of the uncomfortable, twisting and stretching tunes into increasingly unnatural, toxic shapes. 

Several songs sound like nightmarish lullabies: “What I Want” features a slurred rhythm track, MIDI flute, and the line “Sleep, little baby, sleep / I’ll find you in your dreams,” delivered in a hissing coo. Is it reassurance or a threat? The gently warped reggae groove of “Purple Land” holds a similarly ambivalent message: “When it all goes / you’ll be all grown / I’ll be long gone.” Sleep tight, kiddos! 

The density and the darkness both suit McMahon, who wrote much of the material just before and during the COVID pandemic, when isolation reigned. Some tracks accordingly veer toward the solipsistic—”Exodus” pushes the newfound Arthur Russell-meets-Tim Buckley vibe a little past the point of viability. But even at his most bleakly compressed, McMahon can still produce a striking melody: “Mary Anne” has a charmingly old-fashioned lilt reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen and a bright transparency that acts as a sliver of grace among the lyrics’ pressurized brooding (“They killed a boy a month ago”). 

If comedy equals tragedy plus time, it’ll be at least a few years before anyone finds Death Jokes funny. – GRADE: B+

You can check out Death Jokes at Bandcamp and elsewhere.