On his new album Love, the psych-folk artist with a punk rock attitude does something surprising: He gets serious.
“It’s a very emotional record. It’s about that higher love, but also literal love. The idea of love as generosity and devotion and selflessness. That was the idea of this music.”
Love isn’t the most original subject for songs, nor is devotional music the edgiest genre. Damon McMahon's project Amen Dunes, which will play Sunday at Gasa Gasa, has found a compelling intersection of the two. On his latest album Love, he steps away from the obscured, introverted music of his previous albums and extends an open invitation for emotional reconciliation. After five years as Amen Dunes, McMahon is ready for a serious relationship — with his audience.
Since his 2009 debut DIA, McMahon has been known for his introspection--a lo-fi acid trip filtered through downcast, aggressive lyricism. On Love, however, it feels like McMahon has come up for air. The work of a man who is older and more comfortable with baring himself, the album is a playful middle finger to the punk rock aesthetic as he pursues a thoughtful consideration of music as a spiritual intermediary.
“I spent a lot of years obscuring myself in my music, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not,” McMahon says. “Even when it was folk songs and pretty, it was always very aggressive, very antagonistic. I wanted to make a record that was open and embracing.”
He immediately sets that tone on “White Child.” What begins as a conversational piece between a guitar line and keyboard framed by an unsettled rhythm, is quickly resolved with McMahon’s assured voice, a determined beat, and the expansive sonic textures that Amen Dunes is known for. It’s the folk rock equivalent of a muezzin, shouting across the rooftops in a call to prayer—We’re in this together, he seems to be saying.
That the album is so welcoming is due in large part to its streamlined production. The simplicity of expression that McMahon experienced while studying Taoism and living in China, prior to the release of DIA, is reflected here.
“I learned to hone into some kind of inner resource,” he says. “Whereas in New York, getting phone calls and every night there’s something to do and a million people and distractions and all this shit. Why would you ever go inwards?” On Love, he makes room for the listener by cutting away the clutter.
Though McMahon held recording sessions with members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Iceage, bands defined by their complexly layered sound, only the work that felt true to Amen Dunes made its way to the album’s final mix. His patience and dedication to the emotional core of a song helps reveal an elemental depth, and though the album is a no-frills affair, McMahon admits that recording it was a struggle.
“It stopped being pleasant,” he says of the production process, which lasted over a year. “I was so obsessive with it. The songs when I write them are cathartic, but the process of making the album was brutal.”
The result, however, is almost meditative. McMahon’s voice is the most soulful, tough, and clear that it’s ever been. He’s no longer holding all the cards close to his chest. He moves from desperation drenched in reverb on “Sixteen” to the seductive charm of “I Know Myself,” to the chant-like insistence of “Green Eyes.” His streamlined melodies are sweetly calm, but there’s something determined and heartbreaking behind their delivery. He knows how to break himself open without wallowing in self-pity.
McMahon means for Love to be a jazz spiritual album in the vein of music by Alice Coltrane and Marvin Gaye, one he hopes will have emotional utility for his audience. He’s made an album for his listeners rather than himself, but gave much of himself in the process.