Back in 2009, Amen Dunes’ Dia felt like a god-damned godsend. Damon McMahon appeared seemingly out of nowhere (untrue, naturally: like any good savior, he’d been puttering along unnoticed for years with Inouk and as himself), saw the flood in that year of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and built an Ark with two of practically every creature that seemed worth keeping: blind and incoherent surf-punk that shits in the mouth of any Best Coast; lonely-as-a-dust-mite Anaasheed; spindly “Space Prophet Dogon” aping riffage ‘n’ ramshack; clacking wooden-clockwork drones; and, holy hell, when you least expect it, extraordinarily fine troubadour-folk. We were flushed: fractured listen though Dia may have been, it was sequenced to tickle and its osmotic changelings were swaddled in a devil-may-care gauze. The album meant a lot then, and it means more each subsequent year. To the attentive ear, Amen Dunes’ first proper follow-up Through Donkey Jaw feels like the slightest jerk of the wrist, but I’m forbidding myself to sell it as any kind of a reigning-in or compromise.
Because it still sounds like nothing else. McMahon is, more than ever now, doing for psych what everyone told me Dungen was doing for psych back in 2004 — but with all due respect, I’ve put some recent Dungen stuff on Mother’s Day mixtapes, and Through Donkey Jaw makes vanilla crossover sound like a flat-out logistic impossibility. How is it that, against all odds, McMahon totally owns the music that he produces? Far fewer tracks on Through Donkey Jaw complicate this question than did those on Dia: opener “Baba Yaga” alone compounds in less than five minutes a huge chunk of what we might’ve realized we loved about the guy. I could be talking about his guitar, reverb’d to such oblivion that his idea to multitrack it all over the place amounts to sonic fingerpainting, but no: the issue always resolves to That Voice.
People hear all sorts of associations inside McMahon’s voice. I’ve already committed the crime of evoking the Middle East, a sure sign of pasty ethnocentrism if I’ve ever seen one, but one could just as easily/problematically evoke bestial oblivion, an unhelpfully broad lineage of art-pop vocalists from Bush to Björk to Buckley (erm, Tim), the Banshee or somesuch fantastical creature, ‘otherworldly,’ or Motherfucker Just Can’t Sing. The last one might actually be the most accurate — the rest a colorful array of kneejerk responses to Bocce microtones —but there’s nary a drunken escapade in the world that sees that festering, choir-evading kid sing at you with such flavor. McMahon’s got the same relationship to language as Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, who used to sing her syllables like Shaker exsufflations, and in that light his words are useless until long after they’ve had their impact. (Part of the reason it’s such a relief that he doesn’t sing words on the CD-only bonus “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which is of course therefore a delight: a 10-minute acknowledgment of legacy over melody/lyric.) Without getting into a big puffball debate about the merits of ‘outsider’ art, that gluey melody in “Not a Slave,” which seems to expand and contract like yellow wallpaper and eventually curls into thicker scrolls, could frankly not have been the product of study.
Instinct seems to guide a lot of Through Donkey Jaw, but it rarely overtakes the comfortable structures of songs. Okay: on “Lezzy Head” he tries playing Sigur Rós-size piano chords with his elbow, and addled on repeat listens you might just hear what he hears; “Jill” is a stuttering and cluttered paean to hormonal overload: “That’s not— true… I want out— of in.” But that either jar is a testament to how natural the majority of the album feels. I love that McMahon loves so much of the same tactile stuff that I do: every carefully-paced decision on “Sunday” is to taste, from the three-hammer piano to the periodic analog clicks to the garbled recorder loop to, oh yes, the slats of light on his mythologized, whispered-of “Mexico.” And if I’m grinning like an idiot here, McMahon sounds like he’s having the time of his life, clucking out into the universe on “Good Bad Dreams” or convulsing in time with the tremulants on “Christopher,” his limbs far looser than they were in Dia’s most jubilant deluges. In fact, the occasional tribal beat is the only thing that anchors the work to a specific place in time — and oddly enough, that place in time is the 21st century. Such, I suppose, is the nature of the vaguest crossover stab, but to McMahon’s credit it’s never distracting or baiting. I couldn’t let go of “Swim Up Behind Me” even as I contemplate playing it for my Yeasayer-nodding friends.
If Amen Dunes has a lineage, it’s more attitudinal than sonic. I’m afraid to evoke the Syd Barrett troupe (not that they knew each other, for the most part), mostly because I’m sure this is how prog-dopers must’ve felt listening to Syd back in the day — like diamonds were melting away behind closed doors, like that forge could scald contemporary Gods. Yet Syd, despite himself, sounds a bit dated — tethered too roughly to his (now dead) body and history. It’s almost as if there’s a constant relationship, even if that relationship is a disconnect, to one’s cultural surroundings that remains vital even as time passes and trends slosh all over one another. Which I think is why it feels particularly imperative to embrace what McMahon is doing at this exact moment: shit converges if you let it recede, but give Through Donkey Jaw a listen now and I promise it will resist convergence and nestle itself in your brain till you become that rambling fogey on its behalf however few years down the line. That kind of identity imprint is rare and personal, but I can thank McMahon for providing such a durable, inimitable voice that 2009 no longer needs to get involved at all.