Album Review: Amen Dunes – Death Jokes

[Sub Pop; 2024]

Since coming off tour for his last album, 2018’s breakthrough Freedom, Damon McMahon aka Amen Dunes has suffered through the pandemic, contracting Covid and then respiratory illness that saw him lose 30 pounds. In the following years he moved across country and welcomed his first child. Alongside all of this he was striving to make a new album, which, we’re informed in the album bio, saw him undertake over 20 failed collaborations because his “loose, wild, self-propelled approach” was difficult for others to get onboard with.

It’s easy to hear all of this strain, frustration, isolation and inspiration in the bizarre patchwork that is Death Jokes. Where Freedom felt like McMahon entering a new realm of maturity as a songwriter and artist, creating his own version of Americana in a tour-de-fource, here we find something of a recession back towards the oblique experimentation of his earlier records. Key to this is his overtaking most of the instrumental duties – and for the first time drawing on inspiration from electronic music that he grew up loving. The album is littered with samples and programmed drum loops – something he taught himself to do in the last few years – but it’s not always to the benefit of the songwriting. 

It starts in this inscrutable fashion with the title track, which deploys a warped Lenny Bruce sample, followed by a warped Richard Pryor sample, overlaid by a sample of a Schumann piano piece, held together by a programmed drum. It doesn’t sound unpleasant, but neither does it really tune us into McMahon’s wavelength – it just sounds like someone accidentally recording over a cherished old bootleg cassette of favourite stand-up bits. 

There are a handful more pieces like this on Death Jokes, making up a significant proportion of its 14 tracks. Sometimes, as with “Joyrider”, the combination of synths, samples and drum machines seems a perfect set up for a classic Amen Dunes song, but it just tails off aimlessly after a minute. Other times they’re not standalone tracks but tacked onto the end of other songs, disrupting the album’s momentum.

However, when it does come to the actual songs, McMahon still has the goods. “What I Want” is a floating mellotron gem, imbued with heart and soul as he pours out his dedication to a beloved, likely his new born: “I will place my knife, Dear, here on the ground / You can stick it to me, to keep me around / Sleep little baby sleep, and I’ll find you in your dreams.” The drum samples that overtake the song in the final minute seem set to take it to another gear, but instead just push us to the song’s finale – a frustration that occurs on numerous tracks here.

“Rugby Child”, on the other hand, is McMahon utilising his new-found love for drum programming to maximum effect. Over a skittering array of high hats and quickfire clicks, his signature vibrato stretches out a tale of down-on-their-luck lifers who have a few bucks in their pockets and three chords to see them through. Although, his more fractured sound palette only seems to enhance the opacity of his stories, giving the listener a less discernible emotional through line.

The bass stabs that characterise and underpin “Boys” make you suddenly realise that Death Jokes has been lacking a solid rhythm section – something that gave Freedom such swagger and glow. On this track it adds a sprightly joy to McMahon’s portraits of underdogs and ne’er-do-wells, celebrating their anarchic ways and reassuring: “Cause everything you’ve done, it’s been done to you too.”

The slow-burning “Exodus” features the most extensive list of players alongside McMahon, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes it one of the album’s peaks. His chopped-and-screwed drum sample forms an unorthodox light stomp while Panoram and Money Mark sprinkle the atmosphere with silvery sounds, enhancing the ethereality of McMahon’s words about following your dreams, no matter how reckless. 

With the four aforementioned highlights each subsequently building enjoyment, Death Jokes seems to be hitting its stride. But then it stumbles over back-to-back minute-long, forgettable interstitials where McMahon just wants to show off that he now knows how to make beats. 

Fortunately he rescues it on the other side with album stand out “Purple Land”. Here, McMahon pairs Panoram’s melting clavinet, which sounds like a setting sun, with a variety of bittersweet viewpoints about life’s lessons and trials. Although ostensibly about fictional characters, through the telling we get glimpses of McMahon as father, friend and spirit, culminating in a joyous groove as he simply shrugs “Life goes by / But I don’t mind.”

Undoubtedly the sequencing hampers Death Jokes – it could be said to be ‘mid-loaded’. Aside from the aforementioned aimless instrumentals, its least interesting songs also crop up at inopportune moments. The first ‘proper’ song on the album is the sleepy dirge “Ian”, which struggles to get momentum going. Later, as the album is rounding into its home stretch, the scattershot and haphazard “I Don’t Mind” rolls in and interest dissipates. It’s not saved by the following “Mary Anne”, which is a pretty if unremarkable love song that rumbles along until it’s suddenly done. 

These tracks build towards “Round The World”, the swing-for-the-fences nine-minute anthem of Death Jokes. It reportedly took three years to complete, but it doesn’t sound laboured as its graceful organ and piano bounce and wind their way through McMahon’s various impressions of a planet descending into lies, division and chaos. Through these foreboding images, he still reaches out for connection, his affecting vibrato combining effectively with his samples and voice loops.

“Round The World” shapes up like a true epic – a poetic examination of modern life sung from a piano bench – and it more or less reaches that status. However, when the drum beat kicks in at around the six minute mark, McMahon shies away from elevating it and instead lets it droop back into a pool of muddled samples for its last few minutes. Undoubtedly they each hold significance to McMahon, but the average listener isn’t going to follow the footnotes to find out what each of them is and why he’s chosen them.

If the tail off to “Round The World” was the conclusion of the album then it would work – but Death Jokes finishes with “Poor Cops”. In this culminating sound-collage piece, Pryor and Bruce return with some random and unremarkable gags, placed over a recording of the world’s oldest known written song, played on lute. Then there’s a quick sample of J Dilla in conversation where it’s hard to grasp the context of what he’s saying – and that’s the last thing heard on the record. It’s all so mystifying and is an encapsulation of the confusion of Death Jokes as a whole. 

The album, true to its title, seems like a long and tortured joke with plenty of narrative that only the teller can fully grasp – at times the delivery is bravura and spellbinding, but too often it falls flat and loses momentum. There’s undeniably a great work of art in here among the clutter of scraps that McMahon has collected over the last few years. It seems he’s refused to relinquish them because they mean too much to him – though they probably won’t to most others.