“I don’t have any thoughts myself. I have a vacant mind.”
The response of Agnes Martin when asked by an interviewer what it means to be an artist. She tells us that for new ideas to form, we have to make room for them by emptying our mind of unnecessary thoughts and feelings.
These words, heard in the first track of Amen Dunes’ latest release, ‘Freedom’, give listeners an important key for understanding the ideas at work in this album. In this record, MacMahon describes the process of trying to free himself from his past in order to begin creating a better future. Over the course of the album, he grapples with some of the most difficult aspects of adolescence, including love, friendship, male identity, and celebrity culture, whilst simultaneously dealing with the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that come with this process of self-analysis, all in an attempt to find the freedom that he needs to start over as he comes to the end of his youth.
In ‘Miki Dora’, which sits at the centre of the album both literally and figuratively, MacMahon reflects on the hypocritical lifestyle of the surfing legend who lends his name to the title of this track. In an interview for NPR, Damon wrote “He was a living contradiction; both a symbol of free-living and inspiration, and of the false heroics American culture has always celebrated”. Whilst his naive younger self once idolised “Miki so fine”, this is no longer the case. Over and over, MacMahon sings “The waves are gone/ The waves are gone”, as he finally sees past his hero’s image and the things used to create it, and is not impressed by what he finds underneath. It’s this feeling of disillusionment that lies at the heart of the album. We see it again in ‘Dracula’, where MacMahon paints a much less attractive picture of teenage love than the romanticised ideal that we are used to hearing about in songs. Lyrics like “Don’t you know I’m in the mood/ Gonna do it to you”, far from being romantic, seem even more nauseating when paired with the song’s sleazy-sounding base line.
However, despite MacMahon’s hopes that re-examining his past in this way might help him move on from his youth and recreate himself in a better image, this process doesn’t seem to run as smoothly as expected. His album proves that rather than bringing clarity, breaking down the patterns of thought, feelings and behaviour that we have developed over time often only obscures our sense of self.
The contradictions in McMahon’s lyrics and the album’s sound remind us of this idea that diving into the uncomfortable parts of our past can leave us confused and conflicted. Damon pairs soft, nostalgic guitar melodies with a heavy beat, whilst the lyrics themselves flicker between the sensitive and insightful observations of the MacMahon of the present, and the crude, tasteless thoughts of his teenage self. Even in the album’s final song, Damon’s words are still full of contradictions.
At the start of ‘L.A.’, he presents his listener with some wise advice: “power is something you believe in”, and yet only lines later tells us somewhat less eloquently that his teenage crush is now “grown, man she filled out”. ‘Freedom’ begins as a soft, quiet song with delicate guitar melodies and gentle lyrics, yet as it progresses the rhythm becomes restless and Damon’s vocals grow more frantic, as though grasping for the freedom he is yet to obtain. This sense of desperation is made even more apparent by the rift that follows the main body of the song, which is much darker in tone.
A record full of so many contradictions may seem off putting, and in lots of ways, ‘Freedom’ is very frustrating to listen to. However, despite its lack of resolution, this album holds many important lessons for those who choose to embrace its inconsistencies and open ends. When given our full attention, ‘Freedom’ teaches us to reframe our understanding of the past, whilst also warning against the emotional struggles that undertaking such a task can create. Whilst attaining “a vacant mind” may be harder than it seems, the process of self-reflection that we must undergo to reach this end may in fact give us the inspiration we need to continue growing as individuals.