Amen Dunes is the moniker for Damon McMahon, an artist that heretofore has remained intriguingly hard to peg. His 2009 album, DIA, was recorded three years previous in a secluded cabin in the Catskills before McMahon moved his entire life to Beijing, never intending for it to see the light of day. Upon its release, DIA sounded deeply personal, claustrophobic, and on the edge of sanity, due in large part to McMahon’s ghostly voice and low profile. Since then, he’s moved back to the States to make Amen Dunes into something more. The result is Through Donkey Jaw, another lonely-sounding album that nonetheless wants to shoot bigger, and largely succeeds.
The strengths that made DIA worth investigating are still intact here. McMahon revels in a homemade style of psychedelia that sounds like it comes from a place of real emotion, rather than a particularly good (or bad) acid trip. His melodies are crisp and bizarre, but wholly original. The songs aren’t ‘60s pastiches—they sound out of place and out of time, floating around in the air while McMahon attempts to nail them down.
The personal warmth is apparent in the gentle folk of “Swim Up Behind Me,” which uses minimal percussion, synth, and a few guitars while McMahon pines for personal connection. The juxtaposition of his lyrics and the dreamy atmosphere is a central theme. Everything sounds slightly damaged, but there’s real beauty in the uneasiness of it all. The back half of the record is particularly unsettling, vacillating between the murmuring voices of the doomed-sounding “For All” and the straight-up psychosis of “Jill.” Yet these songs are just as essential as the quieter ones. They help define the tone of the album, adding darker colors to the entire palette.
Despite the inward-looking, the music is pushed further outward than anywhere in Amen Dunes’ discography. Songs like “Lower Mind” and “1985” use up all the space they’re given, the latter an instrumental that sounds like a particularly cold reinterpretation of the riff from “Take My Breath Away.” Album-opener “Baba Yaga” sets the scene by slowly, ceaselessly building into a monumental force. Much of Through Donkey Jaw sounds this meditative and assured, and McMahon seems comfortable taking himself out of the narrow headspace of the isolated cabin. The effect is rewarding and oddly comforting—there are peaks and valleys and lots of shadowy spaces, but it all keeps rolling along.