Freedom is more than just an ideal. It is also more than a right for us to exercise, for us to specifically to act, speak, and think without fear of repression. In it truest form, however, freedom is a journey with no idea that goes beyond the actions and words. For Damon McMahon, the mastermind behind Amen Dunes, told SPIN a week before his fourth album was released, it is “relinquishing ideas of self”. It is the exploration of oneself that is free of expectations or any preconceived ideas. Or as the late abstract painter Agnes Martin once said and is quoted at the end of “Intro”, “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind.”
These lines form the foundation of Freedom, McMahon’s most expansive, most accessible, and best album of his four-LP discography. Written over three years beginning with his mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer, the record is a deeply thoughtful and vulnerable examination of everything associated with the concept of freedom and how it forms who we are. It is partly McMahon’s personal account and another an essay of how freedom has contributed to many of the contradictions around us.
Through Italian electronic artist Panoram’s smooth synths and the groovy rhythms, McMahon begins by describing the external forces at work on “Blue Rose”, specifically addressing his relationship with his father. The song touches on a number of subjects – frayed familial relationships and the hope for reconciliation, grief and despair, and the unshackling of expectations to pursue one’s dreams. The chilling and haunting “Time” is like a midnight drive through eternal darkness with the stark guitar lines, feathery drumming, and the hallow synths. McMahon, meanwhile, guides us through a person’s (possibly his mother’s) encounter with her mortality and the realization death is at the doorstep. Through seeing one’s “solo grave” and sitting atop a “silver cloud, so empty now“, McMahon paints a beautiful landscape that makes the afterlife mysterious instead of daunting. This is freedom in the form of imminent passing.
The fabulous and beautifully moving “Believe” echoes the intimate folk-rock of Neil Young in his 30s. McMahon similarly channels the Canadian legend with vulnerable and honest lyrics that depicts death as a form of liberation and how forgiveness can be the most powerful thing we can do. Yet those same feelings can be experienced in the now and found in life. On the groovy, psych-folk rocker, “Dracula”, McMahon turns into Stephen King, the short story writer. Through several stories, he explains how we can either lose ourselves in the entrapments of the world or become liberated by them. The best tale is that of a young woman name Cupid, whose “mind is on fire. She had a spiritual good time. She’s never been a good student; she’s cute.”
The timeless classic “Miki Dora”, which could have been taken from a side session involving the Mamas & Papas and Joni Mitchell or possibly from the deep archives of Jason Molina’s work, explains the pitfalls of freedom. A surfing hero who also moonlight as a notorious criminal, the son is a sociology examination of how society embraces the statuesque male hero despite his other extracurricular activities. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling that reveals the limitations of the ideal we hold most dear.
McMahon’s songwriting reaches new heights on the soaring, The War On Drugs-esque “Skipping School”. The song is the stories of a rebel, an outsider, and a religious student who is chasing an unreachable dream. He, however, has no regrets because he is seeking something immeasurable. A journey that takes him within “one more stop you would have found God“, which is one of the great lines written this year. The religious expressions and expeditions continue on “Calling Paul the Suffering”, which surprises with its underlying, synth-reggae layer. It’s a funky and unexpected boppy number that also displays McMahon unveiling another side of his artistry not heard before. It is his freedom of expression.
The solemn and spiritual “Freedom” is the embracing of the end and the start of something new. From the delicate and sobering guitar line to McMahon’s graceful vocals, the song is a stunning final goodbye to someone dear or to the person we once knew. The first four minutes are enchanting, and the final minute is pure uplifting, psych-folk. It is like a reawakening. A reawakening of an artist who, himself, has unshackled the chains that kept him grounded and found his own enlightenment. In the process, he has created one of the year’s finest albums – if not the very best.
Freedom is out now via Sacred Bones Records, and streaming and purchasing links are available here. Amen Dunes commence a cross-continental tour of North America next week. Dates and information can be found here.
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