Every now and then an artist comes along that’s in a musical lane of his own—where the idea of comparing that artist to another is useless, and where no established genre quite does the trick. This idea of a “genreless” artist is something that is becoming more and more common in the modern landscape of music—where an unlimited amount of genres and eras are currently available for immediate consumption for artists to build their own diverse sound off of.
In 2018, no one better represented this idea than Damon McMahon (aka Amen Dunes), a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who with the release of 2018’s Freedom, showed off his ability to craft something completely singular. In response, McMahon now finds himself as a true critics darling for the first time in his career, receiving universal praise from music publications far and wide (and ending up on nearly every year-end list out there).
What’s unique about this sudden break in popularity, however, is the fact that McMahon is far from the traditional “breakout” artist who pops up on the critical horizon after a stunning debut. Rather, McMahon’s recent success has been a long time in the making, with years of lurking around Brooklyn’s underground scene before ever fully being embraced. During the mid-’00s indie-rock explosion of New York City, McMahon fronted the somewhat-successful band, Inouk, before reappearing under the Amen Dunes moniker in 2009 with the Syd Barrett-like brand of psych-folk that best characterizes the four releases up until Freedom. In between, there was a flash in the pan solo release recorded in the solitude of the Catskills, flirtations with spoken word and industrial music, and even a move to Beijing (where he would nearly quit music altogether).
Yet, regardless of the direction taken, what remained constant throughout this musical journey was his voice—one that despite being delicate and often unintelligible, has a level of power and conviction to it to navigate the haze that often engulfs the music of Amen Dunes. With the anchor of this voice (along with consistent label support from Sacred Bones), McMahon was able to inch his artistry along, slowly expanding his sound with each release until finding (at 38 years old) the distinguishable sound that comprises Freedom.
In attempting to characterize this 2019 adaptation of Amen Dunes, it’s best to first point the underlying themes throughout Freedom. Whether it’s a reflection on his mother’s death (who passed away from a terminal illness amidst the album cycle), the disapproval of his father, or an inward glance at his position in the world as male, a sense of melancholy looms over the lyricism of the album. Leveling this out, however, is the cheerful feel of the music itself.
Whether it’s the heartland vibe of Petty (“Believe”), or the danceable swagger of the Rolling Stones (“Blue Rose”), McMahon relies on classic rock influences in Freedom to form a pop-centric body of work that sheds any notions of sorrow or doubt. What this approach further makes for is by far the most accessible Amen Dunes album to date. That isn’t to say this version lacks any of the off-kilter tropes that have become associated with Amen Dunes in the past. With tunes like “Satudarah” and “Time,” there are plenty of vocal slurrings and unconventional song structures to place this music just outside the realm of any traditional genre.
In sum, this push and pull between motif and feel makes for an unbelievably intriguing body of music that unfolds more and more with each listen—gradually peeling back not only the complex artistry of Damon McMahon, but also the mythical-like journey in which the listener can’t help but think was every bit of necessary to get to this point.
On Friday night at Rockefellers, fans will have a chance to see the complexities of both the man and the music of Amen Dunes play out in person. Given the wildly talented cast of characters that make up McMahon’s touring band (including highly-celebrated guitar wizard, Delicate Steve), one can only expect the singularity of Freedom to be on full display. Any further expectations for an artist so unconventional, however, should be thrown out and replaced instead with the anticipation of seeing an artist now fully amidst a such well-deserving "breakout."
Amen Dunes Live in Houston at 8 p.m. January 18 at Rockefellers Houston, 3620 Washington Avenue. Ages $15-17. Ages 18+
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