For some people, Amen Dunes is the perfect embodiment of art in music. That’s to say that the level of artistry involved in the creation of the last record Through Donkey Jaw absolutely knocked some folks completely sideways. In realistic terms, you could rank Damon McMahon amongst the few genii operating in music today – think John Cale circa Paris 1919 for a temperate comparison.
The new record opens with the delicate White Child, where a jaunty, strummed guitar becomes the central fixture upon which McMahon hangs his distinctive drawled vocal. It’s followed by the fishhook-catchy Lonely Richard, which was released as a taster a few months back. It’s hard to categorise such a piece of elegiac blissfulness, but it’s a devilishly charming composition. It’s got a chilled out, heartbeat rhythm that immediately evokes The Velvet Underground and is all the better for it. His constant referral to some imaginary horizon does wonders for the bucolic nostalgia he’s evoking, too.
Splits Are Parted is a little more full-on than its immediate predecessor, owing to the deeper spaces McMahon plays with during the song. His voice seems as though it’s being cast from further away, especially when he shouts “Oh, I could love you/I could make it easy…” The simple percussion and spectral guitar rattle seem to be reverberating off some natural geology… most likely the listener’s very own cranium.
Sixteen is one of the tracks you could call a ‘grower’… McMahon’s quavering voice, set to a deceptively attractive piano thud, makes for an instantly-repeatable cut. Amongst the rest of the record, you’ve got the straightforward retro-pop of Rocket Flare – you could realistically believe it was a Gene Clark original, such is the classic approach being taken. The glassy guitar helps with that comparison, at any rate.
I Can’t Dig It is a highlight, both the most immediate and most alienating track on the record. It seems, at first listen, to be intentionally lo-fi, as though you’re hearing another song in another room bleeding into the recording of a single voice. As you listen more closely (read: turn it up), you can truly appreciate the psychedelic heft of it all. There are some delightfully gauzy post-rock guitars hanging with a keyboard drone amidst the watercolour palette of the track. It’s a real stunner.
Looks Like closes the record out, and it’s the most immersive track of the entire set. It’s both exotic and completely recognisable. Piano chords and deep drones are threaded between an echoing vocal and metronomic shaker, and all components are allowed to bounce off one another in a soothing sonic melange.
Taking objectivity out of it for a second, do seek out a physical copy of all of Amen Dunes’ work. Imagine the first time you heard Todd Rundgren or John Cale and ‘got’ that art and music can – and do – hold a bearing on each other… now imagine that there is an artist out there deserving of that level of awe and respect, and that he’s called Damon McMahon. The epic, haunting number Everybody’s Crazy will convince you of that. It seems at once both explicitly heartbroken and implicitly positive – McMahon’s downcast tone, much like John Lennon’s, is particularly hard to read and supports both potential listener interpretations. The guitar, too, is utterly sublime and completely pacifying.
If you’re a fan of classical star-gazing pop from Mercury Rev to Neutral Milk Hotel and all the way back to The Byrds and Syd Barrett, there’s a chance you’ll be raving about this record to anyone within earshot. In what’s turning out to be a vintage year for music (that makes three in a row now, right?), this could be the biggest revelation of the lot. It simply does not get any better than Love.