By Mat Wilkins
VANCOUVER – Damon McMahon, the drug-pop-turned-regular-pop phenom has found freedom in many ways. Freedom from the mainstream, freedom to create and most importantly, freedom to write about himself and the world around him without the weight of ego on his back.
Performing as Amen Dunes, the young performer has slowly evolved his career from writing a “gnarled underground classic” while living abroad in Beijing in 2010 — Murder Dull Mind — to crafting one of the most commercially viable (and heavily praised) albums of 2018 — Freedom.
This latest creation is allegedly one of Amen Dune’s most ambitious projects which — between writing, recording, abandoning, and then recording again — took three years to create. The new album consist of old and new friends alike, including longtime bandmates Jordi Wheeler (keyboard) and Parker Kindred (drums), as well as famed producer Chris Coady, Delicate Steve, and electronic musician Panoram. The result was a full length that’s sonically astounding in more ways than one; Freedom is at once a logical sequel to his previous LP, Love, a foray into Tom Petty and Mick Jagger-inspired pop, and a psychedelic departure from earlier releases. Subdued electronic drums and synths seamlessly coalesce with haunting and melodious surf-rock instrumentation throughout, seeming to collectively and invariably produce an idyllic soundtrack to the dusky summer streets of his home in New York just as it closes its eyes for the night.
Songs like “Blue Rose” or “Miki Dora” are carried along by infectious basslines that chug beneath and prop up the rest of the music. “Skipping School” and “L.A.” contain cavernous instrumentals that are made all the more passionate by McMahon’s ragged and spirited vocals. In broad strokes, it’s as if the sound of the record makes you feel good and not know why; it’s uplifting and anthemic, but robs you of the ability to bask in the seize-the-day feeling you might find within a Kevin Morby or Unknown Mortal Orchestra album. It makes you thoroughly forget yourself— and that’s before you even consider the lyrics.
It’s often said that McMahon’s lyrics are about letting go of the idea of self, but that’s something the songwriter would rather you decide on your own.
“Yeah I kind of grow tired of talking about it in a way,” he says without a hint of annoyance in his voice. “Because if someone is inclined to kind of get in touch with reality, they’re going to find out what that means for themselves, you know? This was my process of moving away from self focus. That was happening in my own life, and of course it came out in the music.”
Freedom covers subject matter ranging from Jesus, Perseus, and 1960s surfers all the way to McMahon’s family, friends, and himself. Yet the common thematic thread running through all the lyricism seems to focus on what McMahon calls an “evaporating ego.” The album speaks of heroic masculinity, pride, drug use, and dark pasts, with a style of storytelling constantly oscillating between the personal and the imaginary. But regardless of who (or where, or when) the characters are, they often speak to listeners in brief one-liners that are beautifully insightful and eerily identifiable.
“Pride destroyed me, man,” sings the protagonist in “Miki Dora,” who reminisces on his past and ponders his future as a famous mid-century surfer.
“If you love war, then you’ve got war with me,” declares McMahon in an on-the-nose address to his unsupportive father on “Blue Rose.”
There’s no denying Freedom is extremely intimate, yet doesn’t come across as an artist trying desperately to understand and explain their place in the world. Instead the album is exactly what the name implies; it’s an act of writing freely about yourself and about the world without being, as McMahon puts it: “hung up on all the different things your ego uses to define you.” There’s no pretense or pretending in Freedom’s stream-of-consciousness writing, just a lyricist aiming to keep their own self-centred ideas from encroaching on any “intuitive inspiration.”
“The other records were very self-focused… [the early records] were super negative, you know? And they were very aggressive… It reflected a darker mental and emotional state. And [this last record] reflects a kind of opening,” McMahon explains.
The album begins with a quote from American abstract painter Agnes Martin during an interview in 1997: “I don’t have any ideas myself. I am a vacant mind.” What follows is an album that reverently pays homage to that idea. From its uplifting, psychedelic instrumentals, to McMahon’s disjointed yet heartfelt lyricism, Freedom is like a prescription for the neurotically self-aware. McMahon’s music is for those who need to be reminded that profound moments, memorable experiences and good art come along when you stop focusing on trying to make them happen.
Amen Dunes performs August 14 at the Imperial (Vancouver).