Amen Dunes

Amen Dunes has always worked with an outsider’s verve, but as he approached his seventh album in fall 2019, it was clear to Damon McMahon that he needed to become an outsider to his own history. “I was tired of the music I’d become convinced I had to limit myself to.” Instead of embarking on a familiar project, he decided to become a beginner again, immersing himself in the fundamentals of both piano and the electronic music he’d grown up with at raves and clubs but never imagined himself able to make. Few Amen Dunes fans might have perceived the lasting effect such music had on his work, but with Death Jokes, these influences would become clear. This album also marks a change in thematic focus; through samples and lyrics, Damon is much more directly critiquing the way American culture exalts violence, coercion, and groupthink as societal inevitabilities.

To learn the piano, Damon hired the first teacher his local shop recommended, a psychic medium named Jonichi who had studied with Nadia Boulanger, a preeminent French conductor and music teacher who left lasting influences on everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Quincy Jones. Parallel to those tradition-focused lessons, Damon was teaching himself how to use Ableton and program drum machines, a departure for a musician who had long avoided working with “any technology more complex than a screwdriver,” but a homecoming for the kid who’d grown up to a soundtrack of techno and rap music.

One day that winter Damon felt a song coming on and recorded a voice memo as he sang along with the piano. The resulting demo eventually became “Round the World,” the nine minute penultimate track on Death Jokes which soon seemed prophetic. What first sounds like a heartbreak ballad— Made up my mind/ I give up on you— later warps into a ghostly dirge—This world’s on fire/ Nothing seems true. The haunted refrains of round the world, round the world and let it rattle, let it rattle, sounded quite different a few months later, when the pandemic took over around the world.

“A lot of my songs come to me in full,” he says, but this one felt more like a channeling, like speaking to ghosts before they were ghosts. To write “Round the World,” a three-year process in total, Damon listened to the original voice memo and “took dictation, word for word, of exactly what the singer had sung.” Many of the tracks on Death Jokes had similar beginnings, a process he recalls with a raw disbelief. These songs almost seem to foresee the pandemic, but they’re more about the lingering effects those years have had on all of us, spiritually and emotionally. Their meaning morphed as the pandemic went on: at first they were reflections on our attachment to form, and to ourselves, and then they shifted into solemn indictments of our culture’s blind spots as we misjudge and attack, our veiled self-centeredness and self-importance masquerading as morality.

The plague’s coming, he sings on “I Don’t Mind,” another song written before covid took over the states. If they take me first, I’ll come back for you. This song “blossomed madly, starting with just the little harpsichords,” before including “drum loops from my R100,” and “wonderfully fucked” midi guitars, “wild double vocals, bass tracks from Sam Wilkes, digital chorus singers, an alarm clock, and a sarangi player coming in and out of the whole thing.” The song sounds like “the world’s on fire” because it was and still is. As he worked, Damon fought intense illness for most of 2020, first with Covid, then with lingering respiratory issues, and thirty lost pounds.

Throughout this depleted state, two years and twenty-one failed collaborations passed. He was unable to find those who understood his unorthodox methods, this “loose, wild, self-propelled approach” that signaled a new direction for Amen Dunes. As he kept working, Damon saw the birth of his first child, moved cross country to Woodstock, NY, and dove repeatedly into the uncertain states of learning and losing. He knew he had to go it mostly alone this time, but not everything from that year was a wash; the collaborations that worked, however small, proved to be profound. The jazz bassist Sam Wilkes appears on a trio of songs, and Christoffer Berg (Fever Ray) and Kwake Bass (Tirzah & Dean Blunt) provided tracks on several others; sessions with Panoram and Money Mark also ended up in the final version of Death Jokes. 

Though the eerie, modern blend of folk and blues that Amen Dunes is best known for is very much present here, Death Jokes is a major departure, an ambitious electronic album that reveals new artistic abilities and concerns. On most songs Damon incorporated sounds, talking, and music pilfered from Youtube, and the vast collage of samples include Nadia Boulanger giving advice in French, an ancient music scholar’s lyre performance of the oldest written song in human history, protest chants, a grunting powerlifter, and bits of stand-up from Lenny Bruce, and others, included as “thought provocation and irritant.”

These fourteen songs function as an essay on the way America’s culture of violence, dominance, and destructive individualism has crescendoed and imploded in recent years. On “Exodus, Damon seems to sing in tongues: You say life is hard / Well at least you think it is/ But it’s a joke/ Some day we lose it. The imperative that follows— so use it — is garbled and chopped, as if the only way to deliver sincerity into our spiritual malaise is to smuggle it.

On “Mary Anne,” a ballad about the ways we fail and harm each other and an ode to the innocence that persists, you can still get the feeling that all our human mess is worth it: In purgatory we both got lost/ When we meet again we will catch up, love. When a comment Damon made a few years ago about having never collaborated with women was interpreted by a journalist without curiosity, he felt compelled to publicly speak about the sexual abuse two women committed against him in his childhood. “Mary Anne” is a gentle song in a dark album, an attempt to forgive both the abuse and the ignorant retribution.   “Purple Land,” also speaks to the fragility of youth, this time as a time capsule for a child as she grows up in a dark and uncertain world—You’ll be all grown / I’ll be long gone  /You’ll be living on the sun / If you ain’t careful, you’re gonna forget it.

Seen as an essay, Death Jokes reaches a thesis in the last two tracks. These songs mourn “the soul atrophy and separation between us” but they mourn with hope that we might be able to move past the coldness of holding passing convictions above the more complicated truths inherent in this life. These are gospel songs. They’re spirituals that have clawed their way out of a culture dead-set on smothering the boldness that a spiritual life fosters. Yet there’s still humor here alongside open-ended questions. “I Don’t Mind,” a cheerful, bleating ode to everything we can’t understand, ends like a music box slowing down as the singer calls up someone who is about to die to ask, What’d you think of life on earth?

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