The abstract painter Agnes Martin once said, “I don’t have any ideas myself, I have a vacant mind”. It’s this sentiment that opens up the new album, Freedom, from Amen Dunes aka Damon McMahon. The words are delivered by McMahon’s mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the making of the album. It’s rare to hear an opening address that so clearly lays out an approach to whatever follows.
Freedom is McMahon’s fifth album as Amen Dunes, and it feels like the artist has dug out and rebuilt the project from the foundations. Previous, easily-tagged influences that sit in the classic school of songwriting; Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, make way for a less-obvious palette. There’s nothing straight forward in the swirling mix of sounds that Amen Dunes has assembled here.
Strings sweep over driven tempos. Electronic glitches drop unexpected rewards. Guitars offer more barb than hook; they twist in and get beneath the skin. McMahon delivers some of the best vocal passages of his career. This album was three-years in the making. The tones are deep in the wood – this is stuff of significant substance.
“Calling Paul The Suffering” is an example of the best of this album – a track that appears charming, disarming and pure. However, smuggled here something cleverly disquieting. One one hand Amen Dunes offers kindness, and in the other he points to pain. This track is punchy and clean – but it lands in a cloud of other blows, so the effect is overwhelming. Freedom is not an album designed to serve singles, this is a project that offers a larger picture of the artists negotiations with many things.
Across the eleven tracks McMahon addresses the toxicity of being a human, and the waves of uncontrollable forces that we encounter by simply being alive. He laments the darkness within and without. Being a man is hard, and Amen Dunes tackles the constraints and impulses felt when trapped inside the dumb habits of the flesh. But he celebrates the beauties too. This album is not easy. Freedom takes effort, and it’s that effort that is articulated here.
Someone once said that to write poetry is to speak to ourselves. McHahon gives himself a good talking-to, and he achieves poetry; he addresses the problems of life that are visited upon him. He faces the mortality of his mother, the absence of loves, the dissolving of reason. But he also tackles the chaos that he has created, and he assumes responsibility for building his own path through the landscape. Around him are political schisms, social distortions, and the residue of tarnished cultural icons – but he makes sense of all of this. He rallies, and somehow he produces art that makes the most sense.
There’s a sullen, sometimes sneering, tone to Freedom. Many of the pushes and pulls of the subject matter offer conflicting views. Somehow that’s the point. Amen Dune lifts himself up to process like music is the highest, redeeming power. The snarl contained in the corner of his mouth turns into a kind of gospel lift. Recognizing anger and confusion offers release, it brings, well, Freedom. And in that, there is celebration.
HURRY – LISTEN – AMEN DUNES
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL SCHMELLING