Amen Dunes


Though Damon McMahon has a solid enough following these days – discerning rather than cultish or underground – as well as validation from his peers (members of God Speed You Black Emperor! helped produced Love, if that counts), it still needs reiterating just how much of a masterpiece his second record, Through Donkey Jaw, was. In a grim lo-fi fog that lurched to noisy, somewhat unmusical places at times, that was a primal scream of an album speckled with melodic finesse on songs ‘Lower Mind’, ‘Swim Up Behind Me’ and ‘Christopher’. It balanced the dishevelled aesthetic of Syd Barrett or Skip Spence with something fiery and wild, as on the decidedly anti-Beatles ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’.

Love is prettier, more intimate, with less fuzz and echo allowing both vocal and instrumental expression that had been distorted and hazy on Through Donkey Jaw. It is still a distinctly unkempt listen, yet it is a major development that McMahon is no longer obscuring himself with that noir expressionism that heavily embraced collage and dissonance. Rather, this is comparable with early Beck, yet instead of that artist’s caustic irony, Love confesses a movingly romantic and Romantic sincerity, which sets his third album apart from the knowingness of anti-folk as well as the abstract, baked feel of Through Donkey Jaw. This is an unexpectedly tender and heartfelt collection of songs in that previous album’s wake. It’s not even a stretch to make a comparison with the sentimentality of Songs For Beginners by Graham Nash, who McMahon sounds very much like on ‘I Know Myself’.

McMahon’s new softness is stirring but it is not quite definitive of Love. Indeed, the album can be regarded as split into three conspicuous sections, each covering distinct elements of McMahon’s art.  The album’s first three songs – ‘White Child’, ‘Lonely Richard’ and ‘Splits Are Parted’ – all possess a childlike, sing-along simplicity, they are well-rounded but not spectacular, and nursery-rhyme-like in their approach. The repeated two-note phrase that threads through ‘Splits Are Parted’ encapsulates McMahon’s penchant for ringing out (a little like Cass McCombs and some Bill Callahan) the emotional possibilities from minimalism and repetition.

The next four songs, ‘Sixteen’, ‘Lilac In Hand’, ‘Rocket Flare’ and ‘I Know Myself’ represent the true body of Love, and some of the finest songwriting McMahon has yet produced. These stunningly affecting songs all feature the aforementioned emotional sincerity and clarity of production. The wonderful ‘Sixteen’ sees McMahon’s almost breathless singing accompanied by merely a heavily echoed piano as he continually pines "Today my love is gone". ‘Lilac In Hand’, Love‘s most breathtaking track, is a faster, more textured affair benefitting from a vaguely Neil Young-ish melody and rare backing vocals. ‘I Know Myself’, is sparser but is comparable with the splendid symmetry in the progression of its exquisite tune, ultimately hitting a crescendo that remains somehow reserved, where McMahon’s tenor explores a passion he has barely hinted at before.

The final four songs, ‘Everybody Is Crazy’, ‘Green Eyes’, ‘I Can’t Dig It’ and ‘Love’ are a welcome jarring of the prettiness that precedes them, a moody and misanthropic quartet that hark back to Through Donkey Jaw. ‘Everybody Is Crazy’ exhibits that album’s lazy, stoned atmosphere, while ‘Green Eyes’ is the song of experience to ‘Sixteen’s song of innocence. ‘Green Eyes’, also a piano-led track, is a morbid, slightly bitter alternative to its sister-song’s loveliness. ‘I Can’t Dig It’ is unexpectedly frantic rock and roll, the only moment on Love where Through Donkey Jaw‘s quite visceral loss of self-possession returns (in contrast, ‘I Know Myself’ suggests a certain existential acceptance on the part of its maker). These final four songs contain the fewest ethereal moments on the album, where the monotony becomes more menacing than soothing.

Though they are very different albums, one way that Love carries on where Through Donkey Jaw left off is that it is deeply hypnotic. One cannot let a second of this sumptuous album go by with complacency, and like Through Donkey Jaw, it requires an immersion over time to penetrate its hidden coherencies and other secrets.

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