Brooklyn-based musician Damon McMahon has been steadily making music as Amen Dunes since 2006, releasing off-the-cuff, evolving lo-fi pop songs that are always weird, though never entirely inaccessible. While those albums were usually recorded over the course of a couple of weeks, sometimes in one take, his third studio album, Love, arrives as the product of nearly two years of painstaking work.
During the album’s genesis, McMahon drew upon the likes of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and Marvin Gaye. Perhaps his most telling muse was Van Morrison’s ambitious 1968 album, Astral Weeks, whose spirit guides Love. It’s a sprawling, yet less ornate affair born of a turbulent relationship that covers similar emotional territory.
Featuring production from Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck (who add atmospheric drama to McMahon’s striking, mostly acoustic compositions), the album is the most collaborative of McMahon’s catalog. Even with a full band backing him (including guest vocalist Elias Bender Ronnenfelt of Iceage and Vår), Love lacks the orchestral flourishes of Astral Weeks. Its contained but improvisational approach keeps the influence in check; the primitive percussion under dancing piano chords on “Lilac in Hand” and the plaintive, rustic strums of eight-minute closer, “Love”, feel like cousins to “Sweet Thing” or “Cyprus Avenue”, rather than clones.
Like his previous recordings, McMahon’s voice here sounds distant, as if he’s broadcasting through a tunnel. Sometimes he comes through clearly, like on the stellar “I Know Myself” and “Lonely Richard”. Other times he relies on reverb, especially on the Colin Stetson-featuring track “I Can’t Dig It”, where McMahon is almost indecipherable. Even when his words aren’t clear, his voice is still evocative, ringing with intensity.
Though the heavy coating of reverb is still there, McMahon’s voice has gotten considerably stronger throughout his career. Fortunately, he never overreaches his still developing vocal chops. Songs like “Sixteen” see him multi-tracking his voice, creating a disorienting, effective echo. While he sounded like a ghostly Jose Gonzales on 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw, here his pipes reach the same crystalline quality as Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. His performance on album highlight (and arguably career highlight) “I Know Myself” is stunning. His ear for meshing universal melodies with freak folk idiosyncrasies finally hits the perfect equilibrium.
Love, with its huge, ambitious title and important influences, never stretches its songwriting too thin. Even though the themes are serious and the compositions mostly impressive, it’s a fairly understated record. McMahon’s a constantly improving songwriter, and with Love, he’s created his most fully realized and purposeful batch of songs yet.
Essential Tracks: “I Know Myself”, “Lonely Richard”, and “Lilac in Hand”