What’s most fascinating to me about Damon McMahon’s work as Amen Dunes is how it’s evolved over time. His 2009 record DIA provided an introduction to the project that was a little similar to Bon Iver’s origin story in that he recorded the songs on his own while locked away in a cabin. But the music of Amen Dunes was much more obtuse and experimental in comparison to Bon Iver’s, with a psychedelic and occasionally aggressive edge that pushed it into the territory of bands like Spacemen 3, Robyn Hitchcock, and The Velvet Underground. A couple of years later, he’d pull together an actual band to help fill out and sharpen his sound while further evoking classic influences.
Each new Amen Dunes release has also gotten bigger and more accessible than the one before, and with the expanding palette has come contributions from members of Iceage, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor to help add new wrinkles while also cutting into the beating heart of the intimate and familiar. Even the simplest of melodies somehow manage to come across as a dynamic undertaking, and that sense of large-scale drama is at least partly owed to McMahon’s dynamic voice, which stretches and contracts according to the needs of the track. It’s the biggest reason why 2014’s Love was such a critical darling, and plays an essential role in helping to make Freedom one of this year’s best records. His voice is clearer than ever on the new record, and feels oddly familiar yet entirely unique, like a combination of Kurt Vile, Adam Granduciel (The War on Drugs), Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, J Spaceman, and Mick Jagger. You can’t always understand every single word he’s singing, but somehow it all makes sense, particularly in an emotional context.
Part of what makes any Amen Dunes record a compelling listening experience is that every song feels like a self-contained journey in service of a larger whole. You can drop in just about anywhere and find fulfillment, despite a minimal number of hooks or an overarching theme. Freedom does this best by crafting a seductive atmosphere of songs that shimmer like sunlight catching a piece of tin foil. The songs are slightly hazy, remarkably smooth, and politely insistent. You can dance to some of them, though they mainly hang out in a sort of mid-tempo range that at the very least leave your toe tapping. There are stories in these songs, packed with minor details to make them feel lived-in and real, but simultaneously withholding enough other bits of information to prevent it from coming across as too autobiographical. These things may have happened to somebody, just likely not McMahon himself. Many of the themes, including grief and family, stem from the struggle and emotional wreckage that resulted from his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis a couple years ago. Instead of wallowing in sadness however, the record is more propelled by the emotional tension and relief that can be wrung from the instrumentals rather than the words themselves.
Seeing as how we’ve reached a point where Amen Dunes has never sounded better or more confident, now feels like the perfect time to see these songs performed in a live setting. It just so happens that McMahon and his band will be playing a show at Lincoln Hall next Tuesday, August 21st. It will mark his first time in Chicago since Freedom was released back in March, and promises to be a special night. Tickets are still available, so check out the details and come on out for what promises to be a great night of music!
Amen Dunes / Okay Kaya
Tuesday, August 21st
8PM / $15 (advance) / 18+