Freedom by Amen DunesRelease date: March 30, 2018
Label: Sacred Bones
In 2011 I was religiously bewitched by Sacred Bones Records. The New York wunderkinds seemed to have the best music of almost every genre on lock, and I awaited every release with rabid fervour. At that stage it could still have been seen as an underground label, although the adulation raining down on them and the cult status they garnered ensured it wasn’t for long. Half the shows I saw in London in 2010 were SB acts – Zola Jesus, Crystal Stilts, Moon Duo, Gary War, Psychic Ills, Blank Dogs – and they would go on to harbour favourite acts like The Men, Exploded View, Pharmakon and Pop. 1280.
Pop music was never far from the centre of the label, either. And one of the first I picked up on was ‘Through Donkey Jaw’, NY artist Amen Dunes (AKA Damon McMahon)’s second LP. 2009’s ‘DIA’ had some decent tracks on it but in the main I was nonplussed and felt relegated to those on the sideline who just didn’t get the buzz. But the dark sensuality and danger that seemed synonymous with the Sacred Bones brand brought McMahon’s artwork to life, so the excellence of ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ broadsided me.
The chopping and changing from drone to fuzzed out psych to intricate guitar meltdowns to falsetto soirees. McMahon’s vocals transcended here, yet such confidence was evident across the board. His new-found band helped to graft flesh on the bones, but truth be told they were only augmenting what was clearly inherent.
And this was just the beginning. 2014’s ‘Love’ came along, one of my top albums of that year. It had beauty, grace, a magisterial simplicity and overreaching grandiosity that would have been pugnacious affectation had it not been done with such earnestness and ambition. His collaborators included members of Iceage and Godspeed You Black Emperor, he played with melody and composition and crafted an album that flirted with the sublime. McMahon has called ‘Love’ his ‘Astral Weeks’ – I tend to agree.
But times change. I happened to catch Amen Dunes in 2015 at Brixton Academy where he was supporting The War On Drugs, a band that I enjoy despite of (and probably because of) their flagrant dad rock faults, and it was back to being underwhelmed. The introspection, the nuance, the empathy, all seemed absent, or at least distracted. Maybe the room, mood and occasion were too big for McMahon; maybe he wasn’t feeling it. But I left thinking that future Amen Dunes releases would hark back to my nonplussed beginnings.
And yet the gears of change keep grinding round. A new Amen Dunes record hits my ears, and the old adage “don’t judge a musician by their live performance” (if it isn’t an adage, it should be – paging Kurt Vile, anyone?) stands tall. ‘Freedom stands as McMahon’s most arresting, open, “mainstream” effort yet, whilst not relenting on any of his idiosyncratic vocal dexterity and lyricism that was erratically coming to the fore way back in 2011.
Focusing on his rough childhood and his relationship with his mother (who is suffering from terminal cancer), Freedom is not short on emotion, but this isn’t a tome of self-pity, but reassessment and renewal. The bare bones of these songs are simplistic, evocative folk tales, but then overlaid with what is credited as things like “strawberry funk guitar” and “underwater keyboards”, thus creating fervently kinetic soundscapes. (One of McMahon’s collaborators here, Delicate Steve, does wonders in materialising these tactile moments with his guitar with what may be his finest performance yet).
Believe is a warbling, chugging SoCal twang, McMahon opining that “as a kid I was afraid to die/But I grow’d up now.” Calling Paul the Skipping School starts with echoed soundbytes and a creeping murmur, before McMahon’s pained vocals enter into the frame and incrementally rise as he emotes the mythic rise of a hero that proves to be nothing but a delusion, a mournful harmonica droning and buoying McMahon’s bitter epiphany. Blue Rose is a sinuous groover, a slow dance of melancholia and release that nevertheless addresses McMahon’s stony relationship with his father, heralded by “Said you weren’t much a man to me/But you’re the only one I’ve ever had”. Miki Dora, named after the male surfer that embodied masculine bravery and misogyny before surfing culture pervaded mainstream society, is a lysergic bubbler, easy 70s grooves washing over even though “the waves are gone”. The album signs off with LA, a lurking late-night-and neon treatise about the past and the future, the evocative synth, roiling drums and children’s voices melding to create an atmospheric purification, the rite of passage complete.
These songs address inner demons – masculinity, identity, anguish – yet the music is often joyous and imminently danceable. It provides catharsis, a kinetic purge of the soul, rearing up towards the light of hope and that dreamt for freedom. The fact that Freedom is so likeable and buoyant is testament that through Amen Dunes, McMahon might make it through the other side after all. And I am behind him all the way.