Album Review: Amen Dunes, ‘Death Jokes’

    There’s so much to digest on Death Jokes, Amen Dunes‘ first album in six years. It’s not an album that gels together on first listen. But the more time you spend with it, the more its complex, unruly nature – scraping together experimental vignettes, epic sound collages, and heady songs with radio-friendly runtimes that’d convince you there’s at least two stations playing at once – rewards attention. Amen Dunes’ transcendent last album, Freedom, was by no means straightforward, but by comparison – especially if you compare your memory of it rather than the actual experience – it sounds easygoing. That record managed to clear through the haze of Damon McMahon’s previous efforts to reveal his affinity for classic songwriting, even as its liberating swagger did little to diminish his music’s pervasive eeriness. Though it would be a reasonable reaction to the visibility its success brought him, McMahon’s intention does not seem to be to once again muddy the waters with Death Jokes. Instead of moving the needle in one direction or another, his fascination with pop and the avant-garde are now squared, even if he’s conscious of their contradictory effects. It’s as transfixing as it is mystifying.

    It’s hard to tell how McMahon achieves this: there’s a coldness that permeates much of the music, which is in line with the themes it explores, but it does not feel calculated. We know that to make it, McMahon embraced a beginner’s mindset, learning the fundamentals of piano and electronic music, but his familiarity with them both, as part of his past if not his creative process, ends up complicating it. Soon they become another set of tools for him to mess with, to layer and contort and populate the structures that naturally emerge. His approach to rhythm is especially jarring. Towards the end of ‘What I Want’, he introduces a beat that, in a dance music context, might help tease the song towards a kind of euphoria, but it only wrings more anxiety out of the longing implied in the title. Even when it’s just guitars and percussion on ‘Rugby Child’, those elements seem to branch out independently of each other, and that’s before the song balloons with imposing synths, hi-hats, and a typically ethereal performance from McMahon that struggles to break through the cacophony. Still, it seeks nuance and humanity, not an impenetrable product.

    There’s a sense of toil and discontent behind the music, its playfulness burdened the overwhelming possibilities and intellectual weight it can hold. You can almost hear the ideas and collaborations that were scrapped, McMahon’s insistence to start over, but the songs benefit from his loose, untamed approach. The production on ‘Boys’ is so unhinged it seems designed to offset every element that would render it a good promotional single, which it somehow still was. Within the album, this skittishness naturally registers not as another musical tendency, but a quality McMahon weaves into its complex emotional fabric. The disarray going on underneath ‘Ian’, which even includes a sample of what sounds like punk music blazing in the background, only amplifies the steadfast clarity of McMahon’s vocals, their strange intimacy: “When I thought on you/ I could hear the same old tone.”

    According to press materials, McMahon’s use of samples and lyrics is a means of “directly critiquing the way American culture exalts violence, coercion, and groupthink as societal inevitabilities.” Even as I try to read that into it upon multiple listens, however, it seems rather indirect, convoluted, and hardly a critique – ‘Rugby Child’, for example, feels much more like an evocation of violent power than pure commentary. Wen he samples the likes of French composer Nadia Boulanger and comedian Lenny Bruce, they’re framed as “thought provocation and irritant” instead of helping to streamline a concrete worldview. It’s all part of the noise, the plethora of characters and perspectives – personal, historical, or merely circumstantial – that McMahon feeds into and is eager to connect through his music, especially on the staggering 9-minute highlight ‘Round the World’. More than an academic treatise, it makes for a visceral, uncompromising, and sobering listen, particularly since McMahon often takes a moment to center himself. “I could give up/ Or I could keep going/ Wonder how long this song’s gone on for,” he sings on ‘Purple Land’. He keeps going and wondering, but knows, better than most, to make it matter.

    Arts in one place.

    All of our content is free, if you would like to subscribe to our newsletter or even make a small donation, click the button below.

    People are Reading

    There’s so much to digest on Death Jokes, Amen Dunes' first album in six years. It’s not an album that gels together on first listen. But the more time you spend with it, the more its complex, unruly nature – scraping together experimental vignettes,...Album Review: Amen Dunes, 'Death Jokes'