Freedom is the sole word Damon McMahon chose to summarize his most recent opus underneath the mask of Amen Dunes. Below that widespread blanket, he collates the ways in which the theme has played into his time as a man who crosses thousands of miles to complete his work. The net is as large as the sky above, hovering over a collection of musical landscapes. McMahon has grown gardens and deserts out of the expanse with a meticulous studio fussiness that borders on obsessive. The result, four years removed from the excellent Love, is immensely rewarding on Freedom. These songs are wide brushstrokes in their environments, but the moments where the quills miss the canvass are also filled with flora waiting to be colorized.
Take 'Skipping School' as proof of Amen Dunes’ painted artistry. All instruments used are presented within the first thirty seconds, but each only scratches the surface of what they’ll sound like at track's end. The harmonica wails in the background as an exception, but it echoes McMahon like a scream from further out in the landscape. His voice seldom ceases, and the guitars unfold over one another in a similar fashion. “Thought I’d try maybe stay high forever/drift along the Mekong if I could,” he laments. McMahon’s singing floats along the water as well, never touching solid ground. This levitation carries to other tracks on Freedom, and often obfuscates the deeper meaning behind the lyrics.
No matter. There’s sufficient information delivered outside of the human voice to get at the fruit of this record. Much like the careful and caring touch of Freedom’s maker, this takes a keen eye for detail. At first glance you can hardly see underneath the synthesizer atmospheres of 'Blue Rose' and 'LA'. Through the fog, the landscape begins to appear in increments. First-wave indie blends into electro-pop, and tiny flashes of rock band aesthetics come down with the sunbeams of 'Blue Rose'. Paired with the heat of the song is the magnetism of McMahon’s delivery: “I got money because I work all day” he opens before obscuring the rest of the narrative underneath his meandering croons. The effects are stunning.
'Calling Paul the Suffering' holds more clues to the album's noir. Suffering and pain are repeated elements of McMahon’s tales, but he refers to the “king of kindness” and his having been “born puzzled and dumb” as he stakes his claim as a man for one of the many times throughout the record: “Hear me now, Dad/Clear tones.” The seriousness of his audiences and subjects are buoyed by the vibrant palm muted guitar and bright acousmatics of the drum performance.
McMahon usually reserves the sobriety of 'Calling Paul the Suffering' for tunes that echo it back. 'Satudarah' is a stark example of this, and is thus nestled within the center of an otherwise very rich record. Things quickly pick up on 'Dracula', a more affectionate and sexy tune than anything on Love. “Cutie’s mind is on fire/she had a spiritual good time/she’s never been a good student/but she’s cute,” rings outs McMahon in admiration. Love is delivered and revered simply by observation. In the lyrics of 'LA', love is irresistible like a nicotine buzz: “You know I’m trying to cut it out/but you’re so bad/I’ll never put you down.”
McMahon places these luminescent tales toward the end of the record. The first seven tracks are a collection of more sordid relationships. 'Time' is tale of the pain of McMahon’s mother’s cancer and 'Blue Rose' is a description of an irresponsible father. The title track arrives later and contains some of the records only wordless vocals; and the only visible motif as to the reasons behind the album title. When he doesn’t say anything at all, McMahon delivers a more potent mission statement.
It’s this same reason why so much of the vocals sound like mumbling when there’s actually a distinct story underneath. Consonants are couched with the roundedness of the vowels. The vocals quickly establish themselves as the main instrumental vehicle here, but the guitars require a handful of listens to separate their looping, multi-layered elements. Only a brief rhythmic stutter on the third verse of 'Dracula' breaks the propulsion. Although these songs are lengthy and warm, there’s no downtime. The bass only stops once McMahon has his last word, and few instrumentals go on longer than their corresponding narrative.
Ultimately this results in a listenability not usually reserved for the tenets of mumble-core indie. As each track ends, you’ll think you may have missed something. Uncovering Freedom’s details is a process that most albums reject in favor of brevity. In contrast, McMahon’s record here is a more challenging listen than most, but you won’t know it at first. You’ll be enamored with the sunshine atop the themes of pain and love. Returning to reveal the darker elements is not a prerequisite for enjoyment, but keeps Freedom engaging long after the first listen. Think long and hard, and you’ll reap this record’s many rewards.