Amen Dunes: Death Jokes (Sub Pop) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

Amen Dunes

Death Jokes

Sub Pop

May 20, 2024 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Under his moniker Amen Dunes, Damon McMahon’s music is ever-changing. Even at its most accessible, his work is existentialist, mercurial, and layered. Trying to grapple with it often feels like trying to hold water in a fist; it’s better to approach it with open hands and let his music wash over you. Yet, that oblique and challenging nature hasn’t kept McMahon from steadily gaining a greater following, especially as he began tempering his experimentalist outsider edge with hints of rock and pop traditionalism on his 2014 record, Love, and his acclaimed 2018 effort, Freedom.

In this context, his latest effort, Death Jokes, feels like a stylistic retreat further into uncharted waters, emphasizing samples and influences from electronic music. But, it also contains some of McMahon’s most open and universal songwriting, offering disquieting portraits of isolation and alienation that occasionally unfurl into hopeful pleas for love and connection.

If these themes seem contradictory, that is seemingly no mistake. On its surface, Death Jokes can come across as disjointed and fractured. Even while looking through it with a lyric sheet, it can be difficult to parse through its abstractions. Much of the musical ideas throughout the record come through in a scattered haze of samples, twisted electronics, and winding song structures. One of the record’s most memorable and surreal instances of this comes on “Rugby Child,” with its ticking drum machine hitting jarring shifts in rhythm like speedbumps hidden in the road. Meanwhile, the album is bookended by two sample-driven sound collages, “Death Jokes” and “Poor Cops,” which split their focus between samples from Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, J. Dilla, and Lenny Bruce.

This singular approach leaves room for McMahon’s songwriting to spiral and sprawl. Often, the tracks begin slight and sparse, guided by folk guitar and dry drum machine beats, before samples, strings, and overlapping vocals crowd into the mix. Tracks like “What I Want,” Purple Land,” and “Boys” build beautifully, transforming into hypnotic and kaleidoscopic gems. Yet, other songs come across more like sketches or momentary diversions, like the brash and heady instrumentals “Joyrider,” “Predator,” and “Solo Tape,” whose beats see McMahon evoking his love for UK garage and hip-hop. There is even the occasional stripped-back moment like “Mary Anne,” which travels along at a steady country clip before taking on dreamy electronic shadings near its end. McMahon comes across as enamored by the breadth of these sounds, moving between them with an ease that feels as intuitive as it does disorienting.

That same disorienting element proves to be one of the defining themes of the album. Its sound recreates the noisy digitized rush of modernity, constantly pulling your attention away with an undulating vocal line, instrumental sample, or shifting rhythm. Among this disorder, McMahon’s lyrics paint character portraits within a hollow world defined by violence and chaos. “Rugby Child” tells the story of an overdose set against the backdrop of the lockdown: “You hear that Annie died?/She was straight for 50 days/When they said to stay inside/She’d just gone crazy.” Soon after, “Boys” finds McMahon exploring how pain and violence replicate themselves. Those who have been hurt go on to dole out the violence they receive upon others: “The kids come out to kill/The streets have made you bad/The kids come out to kill/’Cause everything you’ve done, it’s been done to you too/Everything you’ve done, it’s been done to you too.”

However, these bleak musings just as often turn into attempts to sort through alienation and find opportunities for connection. “Mary Anne” confronts the sexual abuse McMahon experienced during his childhood, meeting his pain with compassion and empathy. Meanwhile, McMahon adopts a perspective on “Exodus” that is equal parts absurdist and resolute: “Come along/And deal with it/And live in love/You say life is hard/Well at least you think it is/But it’s a joke/Someday we lose it/So use it.” Often, Death Jokes gives the sense that McMahon himself is trying to reckon with these contradictions. He encapsulates this with the last lines of “I Don’t Mind” in one of the record’s most poignant moments: “Called you up just to talk/Once more before you’re dead/What’d you think of life on Earth?”

These divergent themes all come together in the record’s climax and central statement piece, “Round the World,” which acts as a microcosm of Death Jokes as a whole. The track itself is constructed on top of a sample of McMahon’s own piano playing, chopped up with constant chord changes. As it winds through its nine-minute runtime, he fills the mix with a dizzying collection of samples, including Chilean protest recordings, swelling string and horn sections, and a French language denouement in its closing minutes. Amongst the chaos, McMahon’s lyrics point towards greed, social isolation, and the world itself on fire, yet in other moments he comforts his child (“Sit down, child/Feed off my days/This world will be fine”) and extolls the wisdom of old-fashioned sages, finding a measure of calm and sincerity. Much like its climactic track, Death Jokes is enigmatic, overwhelming, and even indulgent, but it is also a singular and stirring effort, one which rewards those who choose to untangle its knots. (

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10


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