That most dreaded of questions for a musician — “What kind of music do you make?” — is the one Damon McMahon can answer in three words.
“Alien elemental songs.”
“That’s what it is,” he says in a recent conversation from his Brooklyn apartment. “They’re kind of like cosmic human songs, very simple and connected to feeling but also cosmically directed.”
It’s a broad description, but it works. Recording under the name Amen Dunes, McMahon is a singer and songwriter whose music glows with an elegiac beauty tempered with brooding psychedelia. His songs are somehow out of time and in their own little orbit, but also familiar, with deep roots in classic pop.
“I think of all my songs as prayers for myself,” says McMahon, who brings Amen Dunes to Church on Thursday. “They feel like hymns. I love that kind of sound — soothing and cyclical. I don’t know why, but that’s what comes out. If you were to record a hymn in a church and took 4½ minutes of it as an excerpt, that’s kind of what an Amen Dunes song is.”
Since 2006, Amen Dunes has put out three full-length albums, two of them on the Sacred Bones label. But his latest feels like a crowning achievement. “Love,” released last month, opens the floodgates; it’s a big-hearted record unafraid of putting its maker front and center. The fidelity is higher on everything, from McMahon’s emotive voice to his interplay with his duo of backing musicians: Jordi Wheeler on guitar and piano and Parker Kindred on drums.
The shape-shifting melancholy of McMahon’s earlier work saddled him with comparisons to the usual suspects, from Syd Barrett to Roky Erickson. On “Love,” however, there are also echoes of John Lennon, particularly the primal urgency of “Plastic Ono Band,” and the Beach Boys’ audacious sonic adventures in the 1970s.
His debut as Amen Dunes, “DIA,” was the proverbial “spare album recorded alone in a cabin” (this one in the Catskills), and its follow-up, 2011’s “Through Donkey Jaw,” let some light in with fuller arrangements. McMahon wanted “Love” to be even more resonant, as if dripping some Technicolor on his stark palette. He wanted you to hear his voice in its various shades, from tender and tremulous (“Sixteen”) to distorted and lacerating (“I Can’t Dig It”).
“It had been a long time since I had let the songs just be beautiful — I had always wanted to twist them and turn them in other directions, which reflected my state of being,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make a record that was open and beautiful and welcoming. Of course it has its nastiness to it, because all the Amen Dunes stuff does. The cool thing with this record is that if you don’t want to hear that, you won’t. Like, my mom likes this record.”
On its surface, “Love” is ostensibly a breakup album, a narrative of a relationship that went wayward. Let the songs settle, especially the mantra-like drone of “Lonely Richard,” and it all comes in sharper focus: The album deals with what we learn about ourselves when we’re in love — and when it slips away. It’s a meditation as much as a prayer, to echo McMahon’s earlier sentiment.
Whereas McMahon played most of the instruments on his previous records, “Love” was a group effort, focused on the micro moments in each song and the way each musician inspired and challenged the others. His voice is a force on “Love.” Then again, Wheeler says McMahon has always has been a great singer who’s able to communicate his ideas.
“I think that’s been the case since he started,” says Wheeler, who knew McMahon before Amen Dunes, when they both played in bands around New York. “I think the difference between these sessions and previous ones is that the recording quality is better, and the album has more of a live feel and less overdubbed.”
Part of that stems from the recording process, with the band decamping to Montreal to work with David Bryant and Efrim Menuck of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It marked a turning point for McMahon, who used to consider music a solitary experience, dating to his childhood as “a freak who liked weird music.” He was into hard-living ’60s songwriter Tim Hardin and experimental rockers Captain Beefheart. (Hardin, it turns out, has been a spiritual compass for McMahon: “He’s my hero that I don’t talk about because no one understands. Tim Hardin is gruesome adult music.”)
“I grew up in a variety of places, but when I started writing songs, I was in a small town in Connecticut where no one else was interested in any kind of good music,” McMahon says. “I started listening and making music very much on my own. Some people make music because they want to start a band and play shows and tour. For me, I only had an acoustic guitar my whole life, and I made music to console myself. And I still do.”