It’s strange when you see yourself in a piece of art. As a music listener, there are moments when an artist helps you better understand yourself, despite never brushing shoulders with them in real life. You never laid on a leather couch, pouring your heart out while the songwriter sat next to you, scribbling on a clipboard and pensively probing the question, “And how do you feel about that?” And yet, they are somehow able to reach you on an emotional or aesthetic plane in a way that can be difficult to articulate.
You might not be able to pinpoint a specific lyric or portion of the vinyl groove that projects a mirror image of yourself, but there are waves of familiar comfort radiating throughout—almost as if you’ve heard it in a past life. That’s exactly how I felt about Amen Dunes’ latest album, Freedom (my favorite full-length album of last year and Paste’s #11 pick for the Best Albums of 2018). Melding subliminal classic rock, woozy psych-folk, invigorating grooves and a quavering, supernatural vocal tone, Freedom is in a category all its own.
It’s safe to say that Damon McMahon, the 38-year-old singer/songwriter who records under the moniker Amen Dunes, had a breakout year in 2018. His critically-acclaimed LP Freedom might have been four years in the making, but it obviously payed off. After years of releasing lo-fi albums to cult success, McMahon finally reached a broader audience and used his new album to lessen some of his emotional load. It seems odd to single out an album for its humanity—presumably that should be central to any album—but Freedom is a much more human record than most. McMahon quips over the phone while on tour, “Maybe it’s just not that common.”
Though the lyrics on his previous records contained an improvisational beauty, McMahon evolved into more of a raconteur on Freedom. It centers on the relinquishing of the self as he delivers cathartic personal stories about schoolboys, religion, toxic masculinity and his complicated relationship with his parents. Straddling between the abstract and autobiographical, McMahon doesn’t present himself as an earnest narrator or embark on aimless, metaphysical tangents. He wields stories with great care—holding his own feet to the fire and respecting the journeys of each of the characters.
“I think you could say there’s a universal perspective on these people or some kind of spiritual perspective on them. So it’s not just telling the story of them, but there’s an objectivity to it all,” McMahon says.
“Blue Rose” addresses McMahon’s contentious relationship with his father, who wasn’t always supportive of McMahon’s endeavors. Given the rarity of blue roses, many believe they’re emblematic of the search for the unattainable, much like McMahon’s seemingly unrealistic hope that his relationship with his father was better. “Calling Paul The Suffering” is also a reference to his father Paul, though it shows the muddier side of their relationship with McMahon both forgiving his father and leaving room for the complexities and moral subjectivity of a “good” life.
He takes a similar approach on “Believe” with his mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he began recording the album. Though McMahon had qualms with his mother, he sings with benevolent compassion, “Well, seems to me baby you don’t want to stay / That’s okay if that’s true / Yeah, life goes on, and this is just a song / But still I do it for you.”
On “Skipping School,” McMahon chronicles the stories of popular boys he grew up with, who he initially idolized, but eventually amounted to nothing. He draws parallels between those kids and himself—starting off by puffing out his chest and celebrating where life has taken him, before questioning if he’s just as emotionally lost as they are. “Miki Dora” similarly crushes the concept of false male heroes, telling the story of a macho, world-class surfer who was put on a pedestal, despite painting swastikas on his surfboard and committing financial fraud.
In order to reach this point of radical openness, McMahon made a conscious decision to inch into the spotlight. Freedom is the first Amen Dunes album with his face on the cover, even though his face is slightly obscured by a shadow. “For many reasons I put myself on the cover, but one of the reasons is because I was coming out, not thinking I had to hide who I was or what I was,” he says. “Not that I was trying to hide personal information or anything. I think I was scared to be visible in general.”
This album cycle saw McMahon gain notoriety—being profiled by publications like GQ, Spin and Stereogum—even though he finds the increased attention overwhelming. “I find it very daunting. It makes me uncomfortable,” McMahon says. “But I’m learning to get used to it. It’s not in my nature really. If I didn’t have a band, I wouldn’t have a single social media profile.”
Freedom is also his most sonically accessible album so far. His last LP—2014’s Love—was a happy medium between his cloudier, early recordings and the clear-skied grandeur of Freedom. However, records like 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw and 2009’s DIA contained a thick fog, though its elusive, almost mythical beauty is what gave that haziness its might. “The haziness was because I couldn’t afford a good studio. I recorded it myself,” McMahon explains. “But 25% was because I came up in an underground music world and I was on a very experimental label when I first put the Amen Dunes stuff out. I was like, ‘I don’t want these guys to think I’m pop and no good’ or whatever. It was scary to be clear. It’s very hard to make music that’s interesting, complicated and really clear and open. It took me four years of working on this record to finally do that.”
McMahon’s goal was to relinquish many facets of himself with this album, and he couldn’t do so without ongoing self-reflection. “With self-inquiry, you can discover a lot of those preconceptions or bullshit. I think we have a million hangups…Like you make your New Year’s resolution or something but it doesn’t actually happen right away. That process is a lifelong process for most of us who try,” McMahon says.
Freedom isn’t about forgetting the past or looking upon those who wronged you with scorn—rather it uses empathy towards others and a vulnerable deconstruction of the self to move forward. To do so, McMahon had to pay a visit to his younger self. On “Believe,” he sings, “When I was a kid I was afraid to die / But I growed up now.” There are additional references to youth on both the first and last tracks of the album with a recording of a young boy delivering the spirited stump speech from the film Miracle. The boy exclaims with a fire in his belly, “This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. I’m sick and tired hearing about screwups.”
“It’s funny you mention [those songs] on the record with the recorded boy’s voice. I realized the other day that that was my intended Illmatic intro track,” says McMahon.
Hip-hop is a crucial influence on this record, even though it might fly under the radar for some listeners. McMahon possesses a rhythmic vocal flow that isn’t found on most current rock records. “I always listened to early hip-hop stuff when I was a kid,” he says. “Those are the songs that I learned. I’m always thinking about that stuff. That stuff and Bob Dylan really. Those are my two main vocal influences.”
Tracks like “Skipping School” and “Time” showcase McMahon’s use of elongated or emphasized words, manipulating them to best suit each track. “I do that because it’s sort of like playing an instrument,” says McMahon. “Every instrument in the band is kind of like a drum kit. The guitar parts, the vocals. They’re all kind of like drums.”
His voice sounds like it’s coming from a grizzled, all-knowing figure, but his lyrics suggest the source is a flawed, sensitive human just like the rest of us. “Calling Paul The Suffering” even resembles reggae vocal qualities. But for McMahon, it’s not about genre—it always comes down to structured melodic songwriting.
“When you’re writing the song, that’s the most spiritual moment of all because shit just happens, and you don’t even know why it’s happening. Shit just falls in your lap. If you’re open to it and you’re emotionally connected to whatever your muse is, my experience is that magically, things occur. When I wrote that song, ‘Miki Dora,’ I was sitting at my desk, and I decided that I wanted to write a song about a surfer, and it just came out. When I was trying to write the outro, I was up in Hudson, and I just had these moments where I was getting hit. It was like mini orgasms or something.”
He describes songwriting like going fishing. You spend countless hours hoping for something to happen, but once a fish starts nibbling on the bait, you have to act quickly. “With songwriting, it’s not like lightning is going to strike every day, but once it does, the heart of the song is written in 30 minutes. Then I’ll spend maybe up to a year polishing lyrics, structure, phrasing, verse lines, chorus lines, outro and transitional chords. ‘Believe’ took about a year to write, but the heart of it was done in 25 minutes when I was watching Nirvana videos on YouTube. That’s how it works,” says McMahon.
Though songwriting is where he primarily finds magic, he could tell Freedom was going to special when he was recording the album. “I remember a couple days in Electric Lady in New York, we were recording drums, I had never heard drums sound so good in my life except for a Roxy Music record or something. There was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh shit, these songs are going to have a massive body to them.’”
Few records contain both a deep, worldly spirituality and a comprehensive examination of the self like Freedom, not to mention its waves of melodic pleasure, deriving from the quietly ornate guitar and synth lines and McMahon’s steely vocal oscillations. After making such a breakthrough record, I ask McMahon if the success of Freedom will change his musical outlook going forward. “I 100% just follow what I’m interested in,” he says. “If I start doing anything for other people, it will be bad. If I try and make it for others, they’ll be disappointed in the long run.”
Freedom is out now via Sacred Bones Records