Hard-won 'Freedom' finds Damon McMahon taking a more direct look at his past
In many ways, Amen Dunes' evolution has been a steady progression of stripping things away.
Early albums were awash in hazy swirls of guitar and given amorphous shape by cryptic lyrics that made songs play like intricate, psychedelic puzzles in need of decoding. But with Freedom, released earlier this year, Damon McMahon — the sole creative force driving Amen Dunes — waved away the accrued pot smoke, turning out 11 clear-eyed tracks that find him making peace with his past and looking ahead to a more hopeful future.
These themes surface most cleanly in album centerpiece “Miki Dora,” which shares a name with the late surfer and wrestles with the idea of overcoming turbulence with ample daylight left to bronze one's shoulders.
“Getting on fine,” McMahon sings as the waves break and level out across the sand. “Still enough time to roll around with me.”
The peace that imbues Freedom, as is typical with the word, was hard won. McMahon scrapped an early version of the album, and songs find him confronting everything from his tumultuous relationship with his late father (“Blue Rose”) to the passing of his mother (“Believe”), whose caustic worldview remained undimmed by her cancer diagnosis and subsequent death.
“I think her approach to her illness was a revelation,” said McMahon, who brings Amen Dunes to Express Live outdoors on Saturday, May 19, where the band will open for Fleet Foxes. “She didn't take her life so seriously, and therefore I shouldn't take mine so seriously.”
While both of McMahon's parents were defined by a kind of hardness — he initially envisioned Freedom as an exploration of manhood, as defined by his father, an old-school type whose masculinity trended toxic — the album embraces a softness in sound and spirit that the musician described as byproducts of self-driven exploration.
“Well, that's self-parenting, man. … When you don't have parents, really, you learn to parent yourself. I think if you don't have any support you either go down a very bad path, or you can find a great amount of light through yourself somehow,” McMahon said. “I've had both. I've had things turn very bad, and that kind of directed me toward the light.”
Coming into sessions, McMahon knew he wanted to address his past more directly. In turn, he opted for a more stripped-bare musical approach, so as to not obscure his messaging.
“Making weird or abrasive music is a way, oftentimes, of hiding or obscuring honest feelings, and I think my old records were obscuring a lot because I was afraid to be really truly visible,” he said. “We set out to record this album more properly, and have it be as sonically sharp as possible. But the true intention was to make music that was more forward and visible and transparent.”
Knowing he wanted to speak to a larger audience, McMahon studied more-traditional musicians, such as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Tom Petty, whose musical DNA can be heard in the steady thrum of “Miki Dora,” among other songs.
Not that McMahon completely abandoned some of his more esoteric in-studio tendencies, which remain on display in the album liner notes, where he credits contributing musicians for providing things such as “strawberry funk guitar.”
“I have this synesthesia of sorts … so these guys would come in and I would sort of describe what I had in mind, and I would use really abstract terms like, ‘a robot dying on the beach,' or something like that,” McMahon said and paused. “That's a sad thought, isn't it?”