Albums of the Year: After Finding Himself, Amen Dunes Finally Found 'Freedom'

Damon McMahon's fifth LP as Amen Dunes is an intimate examination of masculinity and personal identity

This past summer, in a Vulture interview headlined, “How to Write a Song in 2018,” Charli XCX let us in on a sobering secret about contemporary songwriting. She revealed how, eager to head off streaming’s dreaded “skip rate,” a metric that measures whether or not a listener moves on from one song to the next in less than 30 seconds, pop writers are now pandering to our shrinking attention spans.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Get to the chorus before 30 seconds; make sure the intro is two seconds long,’” she said. “Why the fuck are we thinking about that when we’re writing a fucking song?”

It’s a slight not only against the creatives, but also us, the listeners, swept up in the blistering pace of a modern world that urges us to cut to the feeling. Thankfully, it’s a speed of which Amen Dunes’ Damon McMahon is blissfully unaware. The Brooklyn-based artist’s latest album, Freedom—inspired by popular idols like Bob Marley, The Beatles, and Tom Petty, as well as “really, really good mainstream music”—is anything but immediate. Instead, it’s a patient collection of spacious, spiritual rock that slowly blooms from song to song. You arrive at Freedom’s highest highs after gorgeous, minutes-long builds, arrangements steered by subtle additions and gradual developments that give each cut its own swagger and sense of purpose.

On closer “L.A.,” it’s the moment when the bass suddenly asserts itself, abruptly thrust to the front of the mix as McMahon sings, “She looked so pretty, cigarette in her mouth.” He’s looking back at a past love, unable to stop himself as nostalgia inflames his senses: “Blue eye, you lied, I miss you, that's all.” “Miki Dora,” a stunning ode to the surfer-slash-fugitive of the same name, walks and then runs toward its sweeping conclusion, as though you’re scanning over a color gradient until you’ve arrived at the deepest, most vivid hue. With the help of producer Chris Coady — a pillar of indie rock whose work has shaped albums by Beach House, Slowdive, Porches, and more — McMahon has made his most finely-tuned work to date, a triumph by an artist who lived many lives before he was able to settle on this clearer iteration of himself.

The circuitous path that led McMahon to this included a false start in the early-2000s New York City buzz band Inouk, a poorly-received solo record under his own name, four other Amen Dunes LPs of varying brilliance, and one scrapped attempt at Freedom that McMahon says lacked the “divine spark.” Freedom was hard-won for the 38-year-old, but there’s an unhurried, yogic intensity to McMahon’s faith in himself, his seeming belief that every step only brought him closer to this achievement as part of one, slow release.

The album is “a relinquishing of self through an exploration of self,” he told Aquarium Drunkard in March. It’s an 11-song examination of agonized masculinity, American outlaws, absentee fathers, McMahon’s own identity, and the blessing of quiet faith. In the context of Freedom, each story sounds cosmic, each character touched by God and tortured by ego. The people McMahon studies all live beside their demons, and over the course of each song, so do you. They’re haunted figures who are tired of themselves, and their own missteps, but unable to do anything but repeat them. McMahon, however, doesn’t judge; rather, he exorcises, casting out the spirits by confronting them.

If we’re lucky, life is long, and the mistakes, insecurities, and doubts we live with day-to-day will have the chance to dissolve in the background of our larger story. But so too will countless relationships, memories that will fade, and the places in our mind that we’ll one day no longer revisit. Ultimately, acceptance of this fate is our only consolation; our freedom comes when we choose to move with it. On his fifth Amen Dunes LP, McMahon urges us to stop running, to appraise ourselves, and to be honest about what we find.

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