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Amen Dunes’ Death Jokes is a knotty triumph of contradiction and catharsis

"Death Jokes"

Release date: 10 May 2024
Amen Dunes Death Jokes cover
08 May 2024, 09:00 Written by Joshua Mills

Fans of Damon McMahon have been left waiting over six years, save for one tune with Sleaford Mods, since his Amen Dunes project dropped the 2018 masterpiece Freedom.

That record was a breakthrough of sorts for McMahon, garnering the warmest and widest press of his career with its collection of meditations on family, loss, and for some reason the surfer Miki Dora. It earned him a move from cult label Sacred Bones to big timers Sub Pop - and the singer-songwriter has celebrated with his least conventional work since 2011’s Through Donkey Jaw. With heretofore-seldom explored influences from hip-hop production and club music, Death Jokes is a complex chasm of fractured, intertwining ideas, songs that grasp for purpose, songs with drops of sorts.

There’s plenty of tension and release at play here. “Rugby Child” builds from next to nothing, a simple drum programme and a murky guitar. After a melodic rise that’s half ominous, half joyous, we explode and expand outwards, percussion hinting towards acid house. This is no four to the floor number, though, with the rhythms eventually losing connection with one another and falling apart, an attempt at reaching ecstasy gone sadly awry.

The more introspective compositions are similarly untethered to the usual rules of structure. The reverb-drenched “Purple Land” seems as though it could slide nicely onto one of Amen Dunes’ last two LPs. It nestles into familiar territory mood-wise: sad, but in a weary, accepting manner, shoulders slumping resignedly over a loping beat. “I could give up / Or I could keep going,” he sings, each option sounding about as good as the other. Later, he wonders to an unnamed subject, “We used to hang out / Why don’t we now?” On an often oblique lyric sheet, it’s a dead hit. Suddenly, though, drums crash into life, the echoing triplets of synths slip into a straightforward metre. Near the end we hear “I'll be holding you every day / I can't make it go away for you, dear.” We’re reminded to acknowledge the darkness, but recognise the worth in soldiering on regardless.

Death Jokes’ complexities as compared to, in particular, the stark prettiness of 2014’s Love, never feel forced. McMahon learned to play piano for this record as well as interpolating the electronic and hip hop music of his youth that he’d never turned a hand to as creator. That sense of fresh exploration can be felt in the handful of sub-90-second pieces that dot the album. They provide both an experimental flavour and the sense that the artist is sharing what he’s learned. “Joyrider” has buzzing synths and unhinged vocals that are reminiscent of Suicide, while the eponymous opener wouldn’t sound out of place under an MF DOOM verse.

The statement achievement, though, is penultimate track “Round The World”. The ground was broken on this sprawling nine-minute cut in late 2019. Early on, over gentle pianos, McMahon sings “I am fine / sorting my mind.” After this, the tune goes here, there, and everywhere, from slow, stately rock through to a heavily layered sea of noise, a surge into uptempo dance, the vocals chopped and pasted, and finally a cinematic, sample-laden denouement. The world has changed many times over since the conception of the epic composition, and the chaos that unfolds reflects that perfectly.

Death Jokes is bookended by its two most overstuffed and idiosyncratic selections. The opening title track screams into life with a noodling piano that sounds like it’s about to loop in a satisfying fashion but never quite does, the imperfect cadence leaving the listener on the hook. Finale “Poor Cops” is more baffling still, a sound collage over what sounds like a Japanese koto, the melange of voices becoming increasingly cracked and desperate before it all ends. Both feature samples from comedians, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce respectively, making a joke out of the horrors of the modern world. The music is steeped in melancholy and fear, but with a desire to unpick and embrace the disorder, and make something meaningful of it.

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