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At the top of Amen Dunes’ new record, Freedom, are two fragments of audio that bookend the album’s opener, which is simply called, “Intro.” The first is a clip, sourced by Italian producer Panoram, of a young boy rambunctiously quoting Kurt Russell’s pre-game speech from 2004’s Miracle: “This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over!” the boy half-shouts. Ambient tones separate this and the second quote, a line once spoken by celebrated abstract artist Agnes Martin: “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind.”
The line is delivered by Damon McMahon’s mother. McMahon is the driving force behind New York’s Amen Dunes, and he chose the two lines to evidence the heart of Freedom: it is a record both assured of itself, and assured of the fact that the self doesn’t really exist. “In many ways, one of my intentions with this record was nothing deeper than to make people feel sexy, to be honest,” McMahon says over the phone. That’s the Miracle part. Then, the Martin quote: “It was sort of the greater message of the record. For me, the objective of Freedom is relinquishing of self through exposition of self.
“Every song is an exploration of these little ideas I have of myself or my background or my fantasy self. It’s through self-inquiry that we can let go of all that shit.”
Freedom is a series of vignettes, snapshots of McMahon’s psyche. They meander through spacious soundscapes of seemingly limitless depth. At some points, Freedom feels like an easy-vibes dance record; at others, it’s bright, guitar-driven indie-rock, or macabre, mournful country. It’s a record of multitudes, reflective of the puzzling McMahon has done to figure himself out.
“I’m hung up on a million different identities,” he admits. “The songs are about my family and kids I grew up with. I was gonna write these songs about, ‘I’m an Irish Jew and I’m a virgo and I’m an underground musician, I’m not a pop musician… I’m a man, I’m a macho man, I’m a sensitive man.’ These are all things that we get very hung up on.” Freedom is the process of McMahon unclenching those identities. “Through my own practice, I’ve tried to connect with whatever existed before and what will exist after these little superficial identities that I hold onto.”
McMahon explains that the record deals with his past early and often; the second track, “Blue Rose,” deals with his father. His mother, who McMahon describes as a “badass…. Like Lemmy or something,” was diagnosed with terminal illness when McMahon started work on Freedom. (Late album cut “Believe” deals with this trauma.) Familial relations are often the foundations of identity-construction, but they’re also complex. “How do I say this in a kind of diplomatic way,” he sighs. “Let’s just say I grew up in a kind of unsafe household. People didn’t really play by the rules.” His mother’s illness prompted reflection. “When she got ill, I kind of had a reckoning with it all.”
McMahon uses personal tales to unearth the ghosts within him, but he also uses others as vessels in which he can see himself reflected. (Though even tracks that appear impersonal aren’t necessarily so; “Calling Paul the Suffering,” might bear a biblical imprint, but Paul is also McMahon’s father’s name.) When we grow up valuing and idolizing an individual, chances are we will adopt some of their qualities, passively and uncritically, in an unconscious attempt to align ourselves with them. On “Miki Dora,” McMahon surveys the legendary surfer and scam artist with both a disgust and a reverence. “He’s cool and he’s obscured, he’s confident, he’s morose,” he lists. “Miki Dora is a stand-in for anything. I related to him, to be honest. He’s the kind of guy that I unfortunately looked up to my whole life.”
The analysis of Dora is an analysis of masculinity and it’s damaging sway, and as the record unravels, it becomes clear that the songs are a patchwork of conflicting scraps of the male ego, both latent and immediate, and a desire to excise them. These qualities are the ones with which McMahon is most concerned. “I think male ego is at the root of society’s problems,” he says. “Fuck if it’s not at the core of our issues.”
For McMahon, these things began, as they do have for many men, with his father. “The father relationship is at the core of all these confusions in my life,” he explains. “Blue Rose” details McMahon’s efforts to recast himself as a musician, to the anger of a disapproving father. “That’s like the first identity that I used to fight back against it. ‘I’m a musician, I’m Amen Dunes.’ My father was very actively opposed to my making music, so it was a very early imprint of conflict. It was a primary wound, primary source of conflict that I needed to explore.”
I ask McMahon if masculinity is inherently tied to identity. “For me, they are,” he responds. “I grew up with this…” He pauses for a breath. “There was a lot of importance importance placed on what it means to be a man. My father, his family comes from this lower working-class Philadelphia background, and they were very much into being stoic and repressing their feelings. Being tough was championed. So identity: who am I? Well, I gotta be a man. What does that mean? It means all kinds of bad stuff that I was taught to embrace.”
Freedom is an excavation of these traits, a process of self-examination in the hopes of banishing those embedded relics of toxic masculinity. McMahon believes it’s important to focus his lens inward. “My version of social consciousness and social protest is to make sure I take care of my five-foot radius.” He notes his silence on social media isn’t indicative of indifference: “I personally don’t think that’s as helpful as me looking at those same issues in myself,” he explains.
With the release of the new record, one might assume McMahon achieves some sort of resolution or peace. He chuckles, “Unfortunately, with all the focus on me with this release, I got a little more embedded in myself.”“It’s a double-edged sword, but I think this is a life-long journey, man. It is literally my main objective, even before music in a way. I think this is just sort of setting an intention.”
In the end, “Intro” offers the keys to Freedom. McMahon is a gleaming embodiment of Agnes Martin’s assertion that we are blank canvases, absorbing and mimicking whatever we see. As closing track, “L.A.” rings out over humming synths and galloping drums, the child’s voice chimes in again: “This is your time. Their time is over. It’s done!”
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer and musician with eight toes. He likes pho, boutique tube amps and The Weakerthans.