[Sacred Bones; 2018]
Who is music for? Is it for the artist or the listener? And who is the artist?
Recently, albums dealing with the experience of grief — in particular, Mount Eerie, but also, for example, Japanese Breakfast — have been prominent on the cultural landscape. As Damon McMahon (Amen Dunes) began recording Freedom, his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. As such, the critic notes with apprehension that bringing to bear a critical lens becomes a morally fraught task.
But Freedom also explores the darkness and difficulties of other aspects of toxicity and loss. For the most part, these songs aren’t associated with ****** or romantic relationships, and it’s refreshing for the “you” not to always be the romantic Other — like a cool, clear wave washing over the listener.
Rather, McMahon explores his difficulty with his father, an abusive past, and fictional vignettes of masculinity in the age of #MeToo. However, the latter isn’t achieved through any overtly political lens, because for McMahon, the personal is the only thing that’s political. Women in these songs feature solely as “foils.” Like Alex Cameron, Kirin J Callinan, or Nick Cave, even with the best intentions there’s an unclear slippage between exploration of toxic masculinity through the possibly-impersonal cameo and its actual manifestation.
Most important for Freedom, however, is McMahon’s desire to “let go of ideas of who you are.” Each song is a self that slips away like a shed skin. But the problem with letting things go is that you can end up with a vacancy. During the album’s development process, McMahon relinquished his initial conception that the album be shaped around facets of his identity. In its lyrical content, though, that is still what is laid before us — “a series of identities of mine.” The artist has achieved his own goal, but it may have the flavor of an own-goal.
He’s also pulled off a trick that the press tends to admire, one perhaps best practiced by Scritti Politti — an underground act taking on a more accessible mainstream sound mid-career, which is read as a demonstration of maturity. When you hear the line in “Believe,” “I can feel it in the air tonight,” it’s hard to know whether or not it’s a sly Phil Collins nod. As McMahon puts it, “Mainstream music was what I was interested in — really, really good mainstream music.” Or to put it another way (because, as good Freudians, we all know what mainstream music is really about), “One of my intentions with this record was nothing deeper than to make people feel ****, to be honest.”
That’s not to imply that this newfound accessibility is a cynical move — it is clearly anything but. Freedom is not a “challenging” listen, but choruses or hummable melodies are few; rather, the album progresses at a loping, steady pace, as if somehow delivered by natural rhythm. And indeed, McMahon experiences his work as coming to and through him, rather than being created in any laborious or even conscious way. The album samples the words of conceptual artist Agnes Martin, spoken by McMahon’s mother: “I just wait for the muse to present itself and then I abide. I don’t have any ideas myself, I’m a vacant mind.” The listener may ask: why use a quote, if the music could instead embody its spirit? In that move, in negotiating the fine line between authenticity and being an arrogant, over-sincere “dick,” is an actual profundity lost?
And it’s here we come to the concept of religious music, of that miraculous place where (Collins-esque) gated drums meet pearly gates. On the one hand, the emptiness of self that McMahon explores is very much in line with the Dharmic religions (as on “Believe,” a standout track — “I’ll see you next go around”). On the other, though, the shadow of Christianity hangs heavy over Freedom: Jesus, Mary, the Devil, Paul — his father, as well as the father of institutionalizing that religion — are all mentioned; even Roman soldiers get a burl. The Hollywood hills become Judea, while suffering is constant throughout — and, yet, perhaps, redemptive. We’re gonna have “a spiritual good time” (“Dracula”).
“Good time” isn’t a term likely to be applied to Amen Dunes’s remarkable earlier oeuvre, and inasmuch as Freedom is not as dark, as gnarly, or as weird as those albums were, it suffers for it. The vocals are often low in the mix, which is a shame, but it creates a mumblecore naturalism that is also freedom of a sort. Synthesizers join or replace the folky guitars of his previous albums, and tracks meld together in memory over the course of the work. “Miki Dora,” featuring the album’s strongest melody, chugs along at a sweet Velvet Underground pace, but it’s let down by somewhat bathetic lyrics (“Sitting on the pier / Sipping on my beer”). But that beautiful little bleat, that tug in McMahon’s voice that’s a low-key and unconscious proclamation of his identifiable identity, remains.
So whitherto male beauty, the man who is both sensitive and macho? According to McMahon, male ego is at the root of society’s problems, and in the album’s other sample, an aggro speech from sports film Miracle is transmuted into a child’s voice, its competitive tribalism thereby dissolved. McMahon’s frequent use of the word “man” (is his name aptly ironic?) — both in Freedom’s lyrics and in interviews — has been noted elsewhere.
So a neutral guy will “go with thee, and be thy guide.” The cover image, of McMahon’s own stubbled face and torso clad in generic polo, is generic but also classical, intended as a making visible of the self and a letting it go. But as it turns out, to forget the self is to remember the self: “with all the focus on me with this release, I got a little more embedded in myself.”
Music Review: Amen Dunes – Freedom