Amen Dunes Has Made The Mid-Career Masterpiece Of 2018

FREEDOM, the new record from Amen Dunes (aka New York songwriter Damon McMahon), is first and foremost a study of desperate men.

In a rare interview with Aquarium Drunkard, Damon described the album as “a relinquishing of self through an exploration of self”. It’s an obtuse way of saying the loose character sketches that make up the album are representative of his own masculine ID and the ritualistic casting-off of these notions of a male sense of self.

The men in Freedom’s 11 songs are repressed, primitive beings obsessed primarily with themselves, but Damon’s lens never becomes judgemental or condescending. His own sense of understanding is never compromised, and every character feels lived-in and realistic in a profoundly human way.

The listener is encouraged to make up their own mind about the subjects – from the problematic titular character of ‘Miki Dora’ to Damon’s own father on ‘Calling Paul The Suffering’. Damon is simply providing a framework for them in these expansive songs to do so.

As dizzying as Freedom’s scope can be (multiple characters punctuate every song), Damon sees himself in all of these characters. And he uses them as conduits to explore his own past in detail; his troubled relationship with his father and masculinity the two most obvious subjects.

Damon’s career to date has been as idiosyncratic as one of his song subjects, flipping between astral folk and more electronic textures with relative ease. Freedom is comfortably his most cohesive collection to date, blending his folkier impulses of the past with a newfound sense of urgency.

There’s a bit of War on Drugs in the hazy, slowly-unfurling guitars on ‘Believe’ and Damon’s laconic, unhurried delivery sounds like an east-coast Bradford Cox at times. But Freedom’s beguiling resemblance to modern indie rock mostly ends there.

It’s also important to note that Freedom isn’t a purely solo project, with the guitars supplied by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and cult hero Delicate Steve. They provide the grounding for Damon’s’ reedy, thin voice and the beautifully minimal percussion.

It’s also the first Amen Dunes record that sounds directly influenced by Tom Petty, a bold step forward for a musician so content in the past to shroud his pop instincts in layers of ambience.

"The men in Freedom’s 11 songs are repressed, primitive beings obsessed primarily with themselves."

Spirituality is a constant throughout Freedom. “We play religious music/Don’t think you understand, man,” he sings on the skipping, delicate ‘Blue Rose’.

The album’s themes are often as meandering and hard to pin down as the music. However, it’s clear that the spirituality discussed is one of belief and self-understanding rather than one of a purely religious base.

Outside of conventional sources, Damon searches for alternative means of connecting with his spiritual self. He confronts the physical on the beatific ‘Believe’ (“Radio on, and they’re playing my song”), and uses a symbol of hubris to look inwardly at his own flaws on ‘Miki Dora’ (‘Pride destroyed me, man till it took ahold of me”).

Freedom’s lyric sheet is almost a long-running inner-monologue, and it’s hypnotic for the listener to get lost in Damon’s snatches of thought and realisations. There’s very few metaphors used on the album, especially in comparison to the dense lyrical swamp of the last few Amen Dunes releases. And that directness is a large part of Freedom’s winning sense of clarity and immediacy.

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WITHIN the context of Amen Dunes’ own career, Freedom is an outlier. Similar to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji or Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial, it’s a mid-career highpoint with a conspicuous sense of directness that was missing previously in the artist’s work.

On Freedom, Damon gets to the core of being “free” in many senses – from his own past, his previous releases under the Amen Dunes moniker, and from a pronounced and lingering sense of inner conflict that permeates the entire record.

The last words we hear are Damon slowly intoning, “That’s all/Not me”, a perfectly slight kiss-off to the heaviness of the album’s 47 minutes.

By this point in the elongated ‘LA’ and the entirety of Freedom, we’ve glimpsed his psyche and heard enough of McMahon’s inner voice to half-believe it’s true.

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