It’s been an unusual career trajectory for Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon. Debuting in 2004 as part of the short-lived, ill-fated indie rock band Inouk, McMahon spent several years living in China, before building his music career back up with the raw, desolate, lo-fi outsider folk record DIA (2009) and the slightly more accessible, but no less mysterious Through Donkey Jaw (2011), his first for Sacred Bones Records. But it was on his last album, 2014’s Love, that he really came into his own, crafting a lush yet understated psychedelic folk record – painting with broad, impressionistic strokes to evoke largely tranquil and lightly melancholic, occasionally grand and anxious soundscapes.
Now, nearly four years on, Amen Dunes returns with his follow-up Freedom, thematically and sonically yet another step forward in McMahon’s discography, though one that in many ways still feels familiar. Though a gross oversimplification, one might call Freedom the city counterpart to Love’s more pastoral landscapes, at least in a sonic capacity. The last record saw McMahon recruit Canadian experimental music group Godspeed You! Black Emperor in a production and performance role, as well as the likes of saxophonist Colin Stetson (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver) and Iceage’s Elias Rønnenfelt. This time around, he recruited an equally eclectic and accomplished lineup, including Parker Kindred on drums and Delicate Steve on guitars, who help to move his sound a fresh direction. Freedom finds his familiar psychedelic folk landscapes supplemented with keyboards and even the occasional light dance beats, though like on Love, neither of these elements are pushed to the forefront – they are instead used as a more subtle, textural element. It isn’t the first time he’s dabbled with dance beats (ie. Through Donkey Jaw’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”) or used keyboards (ie. Love’s “Splits Are Parted”) but here, the two elements are certainly used in a far more prominent capacity.
For all the significance that the album’s subject matter holds, McMahon’s vocals do make it somewhat difficult to really discern too much meaning from these songs, even after several listens. There is an exploration of masculinity, redemption, family, and a myriad of morally questionable and morally ambiguous characters, including the “awesome asshole” outlaw surfer Miki Dora, whose self-destructive ego McMahon found himself drawn to. But it’s the way he pronounces certain words and phrases which can make it hard to fully make out what he’s saying. His distinctive, quivering voice wraps itself around the instrumentation, sometimes blending into it, in a way, acting as another instrument. However, this isn’t really such a huge drawback, given the tight, well-arranged instrumentation more than make up for it and his vocal can definitely be taken as but another part of it.
The singles chosen from this album were done so for good reason – they are the songs that sound the least like his previous work. Lead single “Miki Dora” is a fairly skeletal piece which pivots itself around a groovy, synth-laden bassline and a propulsive Motorik beat, remaining fairly minimal for most of its duration, but always with a sense of forward motion. Light, quivering guitars seem to imitate McMahon’s vocal. Here he seems to inhabit Miki Dora’s character, evoking images of his heyday, the golden age of surfing in 1963, but also his bitter ego and personality, as someone who was dealt a bad hand. The payoff comes near the end, as the song blooms into something greater, as sparked by the closing line “Roll around with me” in what may be the album’s best moment. “Blue Rose”, the album’s de facto opener, is the one that conveys that city atmosphere the most, with a loose, lightly funky beat and atmospheric, pink-purple synth pads, sounding like a bustling Friday night in New York. It’s about as ‘pop’ as this album gets, and as Amen Dunes has ever got. Lyrically though, it contrasts with the airy instrumental, as McMahon sings about, or rather to, his father, a stoic character who never approved of his going into music, closing with the pointed line, “You weren’t much of a man to me, but you’re the only one I ever had.” “Calling Paul The Suffering”, too, refers to his father, his name being Paul – though seemingly in a more oblique, sarcastic way, over a light, shuffling dance beat and jaunty piano, the fastest and perhaps most light-hearted instrumental on the record.
The way the album opens is curious, to say the least, with a sample of an inspirational, rousing speech from the hockey film Miracle, pitched up to sound like it is spoken by a child, over a hazy bed of synths, followed by a quote from abstract impressionist artist Agnes Martin spoken by his mother – “I do not have any ideas myself, I have a vacant mind.” This is important because this mindset is one McMahon found himself inspired by, and is something of a theme throughout the rest of the record – as if he is merely a vessel for the ideas that come to him, though they may be informed by real life occurrences. The album’s third single “Believe” concerns his mother as well and was written in the wake of her cancer diagnosis – while being full of wistful melancholy over a warm, Americana-infused instrumental, the song is also a very uplifting, encouraging call to arms. The brief keyboard swells, followed by crashing guitars near the end of the song, make for another one of the record’s finest moments. “Freedom”, then, may be one of the songs that sound the most like Love, though of course it would make sense that he wouldn’t abandon that sound altogether. It is, in a way, a comedown, an escape from the more hectic and driven songs earlier on, with a fairly wistful and carefree atmosphere conveyed by its melancholy, reverbed, watery guitar arpeggios. That is, of course, before the song’s brief outro takes it out with a much more confident return to the more urgent, muscular sound the record is characterised by. The brief “Satudarah” may well be the song that would most readily fit on Love, with brooding guitar arpeggios, sounding something like a darker continuation of “Everybody Is Crazy” from that album.
Indeed, many more of the songs carry on the more familiar feeling of Love, but still with that more urgent, driving feeling – songs like “Time” and “Dracula” both seem to convey the feeling of driving nowhere in particular. They both share urgent, driving drums, the former with a bleary, slightly despairing guitar instrumental, while the latter is filled out with hazy, washy keyboards. The sepia-toned “Skipping School” seems to be the “teenage glue addict” song of the record, with a gruff and heavy instrumentation and a mournful vocal delivery. There’s a certain resigned feeling to the instrumentation, even as he lets go with his vocal in the second half, with wafts of harmonica ushering in the transition, as well as taking the song out. Closer “L.A.” is something else completely – a six-minute odyssey of a sleazy wannabe artist, as he has dreams of grandeur and fancies himself a womaniser, propositioning his girlfriend, much to her disgust. The song carries a stuttering, almost embarrassed instrumentation – that is, before the reprise of the intro comes in, giving the record a sort of cyclical nature. The end is a race to the finish, with frantic escalating drums and whispered chants taking the album out.
Freedom marks another important step forward for Damon McMahon and Amen Dunes. While he continues to make his sound more accessible, this is by no means a negative, as it actually brings out some of his most accomplished and compelling songwriting and arrangements, with the instrumentation and production sounding more crisp and sublime than ever. While it may not be the most lyrically comprehensible effort, all in all, Freedom is his most well-rounded and holistic album, and may just be his best.