Damon McMahon's Sacred Bones offers barbed look at bruised men




Amen Dunes

Sacred Bones

5 stars

Listening to the fifth release by Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-based musician Damon McMahon aka Amen Dunes, you imagine being immersed in the inner sanctum of Travis Bickle, the war veteran-turned-anti-hero in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film, Taxi Driver.

Everything is slightly askew, but it feels real and tactile. It even smells fecund. It's driven by an inner rage, but of what?

That's the beauty of the cinematic music in Freedom - McMahon is adept in portraits, but they are elliptical, barbed and unsentimental.

Traversing drug peddlers, his own complicated family, blood-suckers as well as Jesus Christ himself, he is zeroing in on existential crises - shackles of society and how we can liberate ourselves. Alongside an elusive contemporary like Cass McCombs, he is a troubadour who mines idiosyncratic lo-fi rock to startling effect.

The album is anchored by two songs, which are about bruised men.

The first single is named after Miki Dora, the 1950s/1960s champion surfer who also happens to be a "lifetime criminal and retrograde: the distorted male psyche".

In these current times when manhood is being interrogated, the track is timely self-examination. "Pride destroyed me man/Till it took a hold of me/And I feel it when I cry/I feel it in my dreams," he sings in a louche wheeze, over spacey, psychedelic riffs which swirl around as unexorcised ghosts. The sound is strangely euphoric.

Another song, Blue Rose, traces the origin of that mythical male heroism to McMahon's own difficult relationship with his father.

"Dear, dear, if you love war/Then you've got war with me," he comes clean on Blue Rose, a fuzz-laden confession lubricated with baggy, ersatz-Afro-beat percussion. It sounds like Peter Gabriel circa 1992, doused in worldly rhythms but rooted in grimy back alleys.

The disjunct between hard-hitting content and slippery, shoegazey melody invigorates. Calling Paul The Suffering, also about his dad, has an odd, skiffle beat. In Believe, dedicated to his mother who is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he sings over circular riffs and dreamy fog: "Life goes on and this is just a song/But I do it for you."

Everywhere, you search for an easy chorus, a hook, but the singer sidesteps this constantly.

It's all the more remarkable when one considers how seamlessly everything ties in together, even as it sounds like the whole thing teeters at the precipice.

In Skipping School, he imagines his father as a kid, who conflates masculinity with his committing an array of shenanigans.

The result is both damnation and redemption, ode and jeremiad, as he burrows deeper and deeper into the genesis of such lasting pain and love.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2018, with the headline 'Barbed look at bruised men'. Print Edition | Subscribe