Music Reviews

Amen Dunes Freedom

(Sacred Bones) Rating - 8/10

Damon McMahon has always laid his emotions bare. McMahon, who goes by the moniker Amen Dunes, tucked his sensitive songwriting in sheets of decadent noise. That approach began to change once he released 2014's Love, a sublime ode to cosmic folk music where he explored the complicated feelings involved in moving on after a past love affair. It was a beautifully rendered portrait of McMahon at his most vulnerable, but it also retained his trebly, idiosyncratic squall.

A full decade has fully exposed McMahon's experimental and conceptual faculties. His more psychedelic excursions have long dissipated, even if they were a focal point in 2011's Through Donkey Jaw. It could explain why many associate McMahon as something of an outlier on Sacred Bones, a label that opts to shine a light on fiercely independent songwriters who cater to more left-field sounds.

McMahon takes another radical chance on Freedom, as he's chosen another laconic title that encompasses the genuine needs that nourish his imagination. What's immediately striking about Freedom is the clarity of McMahon's distinct, slurring vocal delivery. Chris Coady's production sounds resplendent, an opportunity for McMahon to protract his words, and yet he chooses to evoke feeling rather than meaning. On the title track, a bejeweled guitar twang drifts over a driving, mid-tempo beat. He implores to "get freedom," aways away from Love's closing statement to "go on."

But McMahon doesn't rely on pithy, sum-it-all-up ideas. He's at his most spirited on Blue Rose, as he opens up about his father and his religious upbringing over a percussion-led groove that sounds like a minimalist take on The Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil: "Said you weren't much a man to me / But you're the only one I've ever had."  On the sustained Skipping School, a gentle, melancholic minor chord repeats as he conflates his father's ideas of masculine pride with his troublemaker friends. He looks to his childhood to make sense of his present, but with the mindset that it's best to let that memory pass away. 

McMahon's reminiscences also tie together with McMahon's idea that music is a spiritual force. He questions his principles on Believe, a contemplation on how his mother lead her own life and how it shaped her choices: "They said you lived out on the wrong side / You said that's half the fun." On Time, he thinks of pain as a gift, as he lists adversaries throughout history who've defined his Jewish background. Both Time and Believe carry a muscular shape to them, grizzled and tough in appearance, as they take on sun-baked Americana but with a jam-oriented foundation.

McMahon is still not keen on writing practical choruses, though his use of a steady groove, whether slow or quick, is a form of constriction that actually opens up the larger scope of Freedom. Satudarah, for instance, is revealing in its dirge-like use of atmospherics as he reevaluates his younger self. Dracula is practically the opposite, as it relates to a fun night out over a roots-rock shuffle. And yet they both complement each other as they both balance the album's conceptual conceit.

Ultimately, he lays it all to rest on L.A., where he explores the fragile ego of a man who's at his lowest point both emotionally and mentally. It leads us to believe that Freedom is meant to progress as this sonically-tinged fever dream on fraught masculinity. McMahon confronts his actions throughout, after all, as he narrates tales of both a fictitious and personal nature. But what Freedom reveals is McMahon's ever-evolving tapestry, as it affectionally chronicles the human condition with candor and open-hearted curiosity. [Believe the Hype]