Amen Dunes - Freedom
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Amen Dunes' Damon McMahon begins Freedom with a pair of illuminating quotes. "This is your time!," a child shouts, then McMahon's mother -- who was diagnosed with terminal cancer when he began making the album -- reads a quote from painter Agnes Martin: "I don't have any ideas myself. I am a vacant mind." This feeling of change and openness resonates throughout Freedom, a set of songs that are as simple and complex as their title. Fittingly, McMahon sounds liberated from any expectations of what Amen Dunes should sound like, and worked with a small army of collaborators to deliver his widest-ranging music yet. Along with Parker Kindred and Delicate Steve, Freedom features Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who sound as spacious yet restrained as they did on Amen Dunes' previous album, Love; atmospheric electronic artist Panoram; and producer Chris Coady, who gives the album just enough sheen to blend its strains of folk, rock, and electronic music into a cohesive whole. As McMahon brings the beat to the fore, it doesn't weigh down his music -- if anything, it affords him more ways to express himself. Transcendent, transporting rhythms make it clear what he means when he sings "we play religious music" on "Blue Rose," and lend an insistent momentum to "L.A." that reinforces there's no going back. While Freedom frequently sounds effortless -- particularly on its luminous title track -- it's never simple. McMahon skillfully contrasts the album's smooth sounds and the conflicts within its lyrics, which explore death, disillusionment, and, especially, toxic masculinity. He conveys just how attractive and destructive these notions of manhood can be on "Miki Dora," using the surfing icon as an emblem of ebbing cool from a bygone era as he sings "the waves are gone" over slinky guitars and a coasting beat. Similarly, "Dracula"'s macho narrative is as satisfying as a short story, even as its monstrous nature is hinted at in the title. McMahon delves into the subject more personally on songs like "Calling Paul the Suffering" and "Skipping School," a darkly affectionate song that casts his dad as a glue-sniffing kid and allows McMahon to connect to him as a person, rather than his expectations of what a father should be. Here and on "Believe," the way out of the cycle seems to be knowing which beliefs to let go of and which to embrace. It all makes Freedom McMahon's richest album yet, as well as his most accessible -- as the sound and scope of his music grows, so does its humanity.