Damon McMahon, aka Amen Dunes, has long played music on the fringes. Albums like DIA and Through Donkey Jaw sounded like they were far off, music humming not just through one thin wall but perhaps many thick ones. In places, Amen Dunes sounds more like the impression of music than music itself. It hints at structure but melts at the edges. It’s sweet sounding but contains sometimes all-encompassing darkness. Some of this comes from McMahon’s sense of structure, some from the cut-loose way he bays his lyrics out. But much of McMahon’s music to date has been made quickly, songs knocked out on the spot, almost improvisationally, so there’s a clear link to immediate emotion, performance and the moment of creation are almost one in the same.
At least until Love. The new Amen Dunes record is still sprawling and expansive, still gauzy with effects and often unraveling in fascinating ways on its outskirts. But rather than knock songs out in a matter of minutes, McMahon took his time here, recording the album over a year and a half, with help from Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emporor, as well as Colin Stetson and Iceage’s Elias Bender-Ronnenfelt. McMahon even went through a botched recorded session on the way to Love. But he and his fellow musicians persevered, and that perseverance is inherent in these strong songs. Where previous efforts were informed by traditional structures but ultimately fractured by the emotion of the moment, here the emotions are weaved through those structures, and the effects are arresting and, at their best, mesmerizing.
The clean, jangly strum of an acoustic guitar opens the record on “White Child”, immediately setting us in closer proximity to McMahon than we’ve ever been on record. “My head and my eyes,” he starts with. He’s looking, then a minute later he’s closing his eyes. This is an album of perspective, of what he’s seen before, what he can’t stop seeing, what he’s focused on now. And that perspective is far more hopeful than before. When he opens up his voice on the chorus, when it stretches over the track, he’s not singing to himself — as he may have been on Through Donkey Jaw — he’s singing to an audience, to us. As “the wind feels right”, we can sense a calm center to this song, even as there’s still a tense edge to McMahon’s voice. “Have yourself a good time,” he sings in comfort on “Lonely Richard”, his voice softening just a bit as the guitars also take on a honeyed coating. Even the seemingly more moody “Splits are Parted”, full of overcast strings and piano, of distant ringing notes, McMahon builds to a full-throated declaration: “Oh, I could love you / I could make it easy.” Even as he sings of “jagged sounds”, he seeks out the smooth places between them here.
The dedication to these songs also lets him try out new and exciting textures. There’s a sparseness of “Lilac in Hand” that serves him well, that lets his voice command attention instead of melding with hazy instrumentation. “Sixteen” is built on simple, echoing piano chords, and the vocals get a faint static on them. Like “Lilac in Hand”, it offers a stripped-down counterpoint to the more lush tracks early in the record, and both the spare and the lush become stronger for the shift. “Everybody is Crazy” seems to rework the older, hazier sound of his early records into something more clear-eyed, something bluesy and heavy and excellent. Then there’s late-album standout “I Can’t Dig It”, which is McMahon’s all-out rock song, full of angular, slashing guitars and distant crashing drums. His howl fits well and this turn towards garage fury is a perfect fit of sound before the ruminant, aching space of the epic title track that closes the record.
The new uses of space that this approach affords McMahon can reveal the occasional growing pain. “I Know Myself” is catchy enough, but perhaps a bit too light in comparison to these other songs, stripped-down but perhaps in a way that needs one more layer. Meanwhile, “Green Eyes” feels too attached to older sounds, too slow and trudging amidst these livelier more resilient songs. But getting lost in the beautiful piano of the album closer with McMahon, it becomes clear that this is Amen Dunes’ finest album yet, a fully formed statement, and one that moves out of the dark and takes difficult but strong steps towards the light. Note the simple album title. Love. McMahon’s takes the plainspoken and renders it into poetry on his new album, and where previous records coiled in on themselves in interesting ways, this one reaches out to a newfound and bright future.