Lately, it seems that a lot of folksy post-indie rockers have been glaring in my direction, wordlessly requesting that I remove my head from my ass and admit that maybe guitar music isn’t Satan’s work. In 2014 alone, Sun Kil Moon, Angel Olsen, and Carla Bozulich have made incredibly impassioned (and inventive) statements through folk and blues mediums, and soft rockers like Pure X and Sean Nicholas Savage have somehow liberated adult alternative rock from AM’s well-lotioned yet seemingly strong grip. Perhaps I got sidetracked by experimental electronica and noise rock between 2011 and 2014, but now that I have lent an ear, it sounds like neo-folk is making a strong comeback. Or maybe form doesn’t really matter anymore. Maybe form is just a modality, a material choice, an issue of economy. What I do know is that whatever strangely beautiful muse is behind Damon McMahon’s work as Amen Dunes has inspired a pretty great body of tunes.
McMahon’s latest offering as Amen Dunes is entitled Love, an old rockist trope that McMahon explores with a kind of guarded sincerity. On excellent opener “White Child,” (I’m not really sure how many) guitars bounce all across an aural landscape in varying degrees of synchronicity as McMahon’s wiry voice breaks through like a particularly strong bout of tinnitus. As it builds, it establishes an infectious energy without visually placing you in a crowd full of sweaty, boozed-up rock n roll fanatics at some ironically macho outdoor music festival. In less sassy words, it’s weirdly anthemic without sounding forced, a much welcomed quality.
What follows on Love is a beautifully elastic bunch of psych folk tunes that unpredictably weave in and out of focus; as far as I can tell, its gradient sequencing is a musical metaphor for just how messy and fickle and mercurial love can be. Feature track “Lonely Richard” is a deceptively molasses-like Americana song that moves by subverting our expectations of typical rock tempo as its beautifully charming melody just sort of hangs behind its beat before comfortably catching up in a dynamic, cyclical manner. Other standouts such as plinky pop song “Sixteen,” serpentine rock tune “Rocket Flare,” and ever expanding 8-minute piano and hand drum centered closer “Love” exemplify a kind of patient yet kinetic energy that runs through Love, charging it with a unique, erratic spark that makes it stand out in a field of folky singer/songwriter records.
Still, some songs on Love haven’t yet stuck with me—as may be expected from a stylistically singular record—yet McMahon’s searching vocal expression that permeates every song makes Love an endearing record. Love, like… um… love itself, is easy to get lost in, and difficult to immediately make sense of, and who knows if I’ll love it as much in a year or a month or even next week, but for now (and please excuse my selfishness), Love is exactly what I need right now: a sometimes clumsy, always honest, yet humanly reserved record that says what it means even though it might not quite know what it’s saying.
Love has the power to turn even the beefiest of stereo systems into just another glass held up to the door. Put your ear to that glass and you’ll find yourself eavesdropping on the ramblings of a remarkable songwriter, muffled though the details may be. Damon McMahon, who has recorded as Amen Dunes since 2006, wraps his personal folk songs in thick layers of gauze made up of strange tones and quicksilver reverberations. Despite the protection though, the songs already sound broken. They feel like personal struggles that were never meant to reach beyond the walls of McMahon’s bedroom. Hearing them through the door this way doesn’t make them particularly understandable, but it’s a fair tradeoff given that Love is one of the most uniquely atmospheric albums of the year so far. Every song sounds haunted in a different way, and no single moment is ever less than captivating.
Opener “White Child” is a fair representation of the album as a whole, slurring McMahon’s braying, soulful voice and his leaden-handed guitar playing into a homogenous blur. Outside this core, there aren’t other instruments so much as there are the suggestions of other instruments. The reverb might be playing tricks on us, or we might just be hearing their echoes still bouncing around inside our glass. On “Sixteen,” we get confirmation that there other elements in the room, and a blatant wrong note from the piano halfway through is a good reminder that we’re encroaching on a performance performed for the performer. Only “I Can’t Dig It,” with its muddy electric guitar strumming, seems like an acknowledgment that there are other people outside McMahon’s room. Judging by the noted uptick in volume, he doesn’t seem to care.
Despite all the atmospheric tricks though, the songs remain incredibly well written. The melodies are hypnotic (especially the mysterious background chimes on “Splits are Parted”), and the lyrics that are intelligible fit the mood perfectly. The simple declarations of “Everybody is Crazy,” like all of Love itself, sound like an exploration of humanity’s qualms and charms rather than a break from them. Despite that generality though, it remains a stunningly private, intimate record that’s worth listening in on no matter the dangers of being caught.
Love is out now on Sacred Bones Records.