Amen Dunes – the project of New York City-based Damon McMahon – will release his new album, Death Jokes, on May 10th via Sub Pop Records. In conjunction, he presents the first single, “Purple Land,” and announces concerts in select cities in the US, UK and Europe (full list is below). With Death Jokes, for the first time since the project’s incarnation in 2006, the spiritual reflections and meditations of Amen Dunes are turned away from himself and out sharply towards the world. Through samples and lyrics, the album plays like a scathing electronic essay on America’s culture of violence, dominance, and destructive individualism.
Death Jokes marks Amen Dunes’ first record since 2018’s Freedom, named a “best album of the decade” by Pitchfork who called it “his euphoric breakthrough… silvery and romantic, like a hallucination of the classic-rock songbook.” While McMahon has always worked with an outsider’s verve, he approached his seventh album in fall 2019 as an outsider to his own history. Instead of embarking on the eerie, modern blend of folk and blues for which he’s known for, McMahon 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.
As he worked, McMahon 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, McMahon saw the birth of his first child, moved cross country from Los Angeles 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. However small, the collaborations that worked proved to be profound. The jazz bassist Sam Wilkes appears on a trio of songs, producers 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. On most songs, McMahon incorporated sounds, talking, and music pilfered from YouTube. The vast collage of samples include an interview with J Dilla, recordings from Type O Negative and Coil, a lyre performance of the oldest written song in human history, protest chants, a grunting powerlifter, and bits of stand-up from Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and others, as “thought provocation and irritant.”
The songs on Death Jokes 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.
“Purple Land” started as a campfire country song before shifting throughout its production to incorporate polyrhythms, 909s, reggae guitar, backwards bass, and a drum break. The song speaks to the fragility of life, first in childhood and then as we age. Throughout, an omniscient angel figure presides over the ballad — “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.” McMahon explains, “Purple Land is one of the album’s interstitial character portraits: first of a child, then the narrator, and then of an empowered figure as they all navigate and find liberation from the disconnection and disenchantment of an uncertain world. It begins first as a song to my daughter about life on earth, offering platitudes, warnings, and guidance through its various stages, until it becomes a reflection on the narrator’s own uncertainties as he moves through the world, ending finally with a character Rhea Anne who exemplifies liberation from it all in a moment of simple reckless freedom, as the beat drops in the final minute of the song.”
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.
Many portions of the above press release are pulled from the Death Jokes bio by Catherine Lacey.
Death Jokes Tracklist:
1. Death Jokes
4. What I Want
5. Rugby Child
9. Solo Tape
10. Purple Land
11. I Don’t Mind
12. Mary Anne
13. Round the World
14. Poor Cops
Amen Dunes Tour Dates
(US shows on sale February 16th @ 10am local time)
Wed. May 8 - San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Fri. May 10 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Bellwether
Wed. May 15 - Brooklyn, NY @ Brooklyn Steel
Mon. Jul. 1 - Paris, FR @ Trabendo
Wed. Jul. 3 - Berlin, DE @ Gretchen
Fri. Jul. 5 - Roskilde, DK @ Roskilde Festival
Sun. Jul. 7 - Amsterdam, NL @ Paradiso
Tue. Jul. 9 - London, UK @ KOKO