Brooklyn-based musician Damon McMahon has since long created weird, but always interesting lo-fi music under the Amen Dunes moniker. The fact that his former albums were often recorded in a span of a few weeks – sometimes in one take – gave them a sketchy “capture-the-moment” feel; almost an improvisational sound where songs just kept humming on seemingly without a clear sense of direction. But arguably, this approach served as the main appeal with these early recordings. As one reviewer put it; McMahon’s mastery lies in his ability to spontaneously capture delicate swells of despair, anxiety and hope.
Love, on the other hand, is the product of nearly two years of labor. It still counts as lo-fi, but it’s not the lo-lo-fi of his early recordings. There are a couple of impressive names that appear on this album; Colin Stetson and Iceage’s Elias Bender-Rønnenfelt are the most obvious ones, but it’s – I believe – the production duties of Dave Bryant and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor that adds the extra element of drama to Love’s overall sound.
While Love is so much more focuses and accessible than any of McMahon’s previous works, it’s still hard to pigeonhole its delicate, unassuming strums. Some songs like “Lonely Richard” and “Green Eyes” are looping along with motoric rhythms and very few chord changes, evoking some distant comparisons to The Velvet Underground. Then there is the beautiful, over eight minutes long title track that sounds a bit like a drunken Richard Ashcroft attempting to cover Radiohead’s “The Pyramid Song”. It’s possibly the most rewarding moment on the album, moving inside an ambient folk taxonomy, while constantly balancing between harmony and dissonance. And towards the end, you’ll find “I Can’t Dig It” – the strangest thing on here – full of angular, slashing riffs and furious drums, sounding like a weirdo punk band playing trapped inside a container.
But the strongest songs are often does that stick to more traditional folk, even if they’re often obscured by fractured structures and some truly fascinating choices in chord progressions and (dis)harmony. Especially “White Child” sounds at times like two tracks played on top of each other, held together by one of the strongest melodies on the album. And then you have the sparseness of “I Know Myself” and “Lilac In Hand”, two tracks that beautifully contrast the hazier songs with more audible and direct acoustic plucks. One thing is for certain; Love is never boring. It’s a melting pot of different styles, creatively and ambitiously drawn out of tradition. And it’s all held together by McMahon’s intense yet elastic voice that carries fascinating first person narratives of searching and self-reflections, often dubbed in obscurity and blurred meanings.
Die-hard fans might miss the spontaneity of early albums, but with Love, I believe McMahon has taken a huge step into a broader conversation. Like the title suggest, these songs are lighter, brighter and more emotional than anything in his back-catalogue, but they remain subtle, understated growers that are well worth investing time in.