Throughout his career as Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon has existed just on the other side of clarity. He was, for years, the rising underground artist who sounds like he’s singing from around a corner, and who ducks into the shadows to avoid the light.
Musically, McMahon shrouded himself in noise and effects on his debut, 2009’s DIA, then gradually peeled back that shroud on 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw and 2014’s Love. That process brought Amen Dunes’ music forward into the light, but not necessarily McMahon: Even as Love’s songs shimmered, their creator stayed just below the surface, an indistinct form behind this promising work.
On Amen Dunes’ new album Freedom, McMahon finally shows himself fully, and the results are both charmingly raw and uncommonly lovely. His songs are captured cleanly and intimately, a credit to producer Chris Coady, known for his work with Beach House and Grizzly Bear, among others. His lyrics are more personal than ever before. He even put his own face on the cover for the first time—eyes averted, of course.
There is a lot to like on Freedom. Across its 11 tracks, McMahon reflects on his own life like a seething poet, often spitting out lyrics as if they’re forcing themselves from his body. Recurring topics include his hard-knock childhood, masculinity, spirituality, his mother’s battle with cancer and his difficult relationship with his father. “I can’t catch a break,” McMahon sings on “Blue Rose,” a woozy disco-dub-folk jam. “You weren’t much a man to me, but you’re the only one I ever had.”
Elsewhere, “Calling Paul the Suffering” finds a danceable groove in a skittering beat and spirited playing by guitarist “Delicate Steve” Marion and bassist Gus Seyffert. “Believe” rides an undulating groove to a gentle crescendo. “Time” teeters between McMahon’s tense, quivering voice and a relaxed, reliable motorik rhythm. And Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs swoops in to sprinkle some six-stringed wizardry on “Freedom,” a deliciously unhurried tune that somehow sums up the whole effort in five words that simply sound good together: “Elation,” McMahon sings, “wasted, ancient, patient, hesitation.”
Freedom’s peak, however, is a five-minute-long song called “Miki Dora,” built on another solid foundation of motorik beat and burbling bassline. As the groove slowly unfolds, McMahon ascends into a sort of self-reflective strut:
Pride destroyed me, man
Till it took ahold of me
I feel it when cry
I can feel it in my dreams
Even when he was obscured by the hiss and echo of his lo-fi beginnings, McMahon had the look of a fascinating songwriter. Freedom bears that out. As long as he keeps making music, it’ll be fun digging in. It already is.