by Andrew Hertzberg (@and_hertz)
Whatever possessed Damon McMahon of Amen Dunes to begin his newest album Freedom (Sacred Bones) with the audio recording of a four-year-old delivering the speech of coach Herb Brooks from the 1980 movie ‘Miracle’ is beyond me. But that is how the album begins, underlain with sustained keyboards, and quickly followed by a quote from abstract artist Agnes Martin: “I don’t have any ideas myself, I have a vacant mind.” “The album kind of has two sides to the stories and the symbols and stuff,” McMahon said in a recent interview. “On one hand, Freedom is a very flippant title. It’s sort of meant to be a little cheeky or kind of a punk, ridiculous thing to call your album. And in a way, that statement, “I have no ideas to myself; I have a vacant mind,” on the surface, it’s sort of like a critique [of myself]. But underneath it all, there’s a very sincere attempt to get at something with the title of the album and that quote.”
Naturally, the album’s name gives the listener a lot to think about. Like Torres sang in 2015’s “Sprinter,” “There’s freedom to and freedom from.” Is this album Freedom about the freedom to do stuff? Freedom from something or someone? The short answer: both. And more. “I guess at the end of the day, the inside’s the outside, the outside’s the inside,” McMahon said. It is this contradiction that permeates throughout the album. He also mentions in the interview about his writing process, about why this album took so long (it’s his first in four years) and how Electric Lady Studio provided the spark needed for the album to coalesce. The result is a sound that is full and stripped down at the same time, but certainly far from his lo-fi roots (which was more of the result of practicality than aesthetic decision in the first place). Now, Freedom sounds like the album McMahon has been itching to make.
Songs on the album often reject conventional song structures. They are formed without chorus and verses and all the other parts that are supposed to happen with such catchy music. McMahon’s lyrics blur into each other, a trait more endearing than repulsive: reading them is poetry, but listening to them is an exercise in resolution. “If you want war then you got war with me” from “Blue Rose” is the closest to anthemic this album gets. The song is about his father, about male identity, and where ideas of masculinity come from. This theme continues throughout the album, with songs like “Miki Dora” about the 1960s surfer, “Dracula” which seems to allude to reclusive musician Jandek (due to its references to Houston and Point Judith), and “Calling Paul the Suffering,” another song about McMahon’s father. The song feels like a rolling mushroom trip, punctuated by staccato guitar and bass pluckings, ambiguous lyrics where the word ‘dad’ sounds like ‘dead’ and lead McMahon to eventually sing in tongues. It’s one of the shortest on the record but also one of the sweetest.
The shaky quality and ambiguity of McMahon’s voice are more to his favor than a drawback. In the song “Time,” he sings “So much time / So much pain” in words not fully pronounced, heavy with reverb to expand the weight of loss. “When I was a kid I was afraid to die / but I growed up now” he sings on “Believe,” but can we believe those words? Further, while these songs can be interpreted as about McMahon, they’re also filled with other characters (remember: “the inside’s the outside, the outside’s the inside”). McMahon has made his appreciation of Van Morrison known in the past, but other artists I hear throughout this album are Nick Cave, Dan Bejar, even Talk Talk.
While writing this review, I realized I was getting overly-philosophical, in part due to the layers and layers that pile up to make the album. It didn’t help that I recently read Octavia Butler’s The Parable of Sower. At one point, the protagonist Lauren Olamina is forced to flee her safe, gated-community after a break-in. She and her allies are walking along a freeway, headed to an idea of safety, surrounded by fires and strangers and constant danger. I think how “Satudarah” in particular is a soundtrack to a gritty, fictional post-apocalyptic world. I think about how Amen Dunes already knows we are living in them. The soundtrack to a world where five bombs go off and the government doesn’t care. Where it’s too easy to scroll past the latest school shooting that barely makes a dent in the news feed. Where unethical surveillance practices keep people on their toes just long enough for online platforms to code sneakier surveillance practices until the next one drops.
Like many of Amen Dunes songs, this is a world without structure, without chorus, a world where we are all mumbling and wandering and searching. For a prophet? For guidance? Or for that vacancy as quoted by Agnes Martin at the beginning of the record? It is a world of change, one that can bring joy as much as pain, one that can allow the possibility of breaking barriers as much as being restrained by them. A world of heroes and anti-heroes, whether famous surfers or motorcycle gangs or everyday teenagers trying to find a peaceful way to exist. A world where the dirt underground deserves as much sunlight as the filth we see every day.
And while this is an album that can be picked apart again and again until the bones are licked clean, it’s also a great album to just enjoy on the surface: it is a beautiful achievement that lands on the promise of McMahon’s earlier work. I think about how unlike a character in a dystopian nightmares like Lauren Olamina, most of us would be totally unprepared and fucked if we were to live in that post-society. But at least we’d have the perfect soundtrack to go out on before the dogs get to our corpses.