The enigmatic Brooklyn songwriter finally opens up on a grand, pop-rock masterpiece
As a teenager, Damon McMahon used to catch the train from his countryside Connecticut neighbourhood, rolling up to New York to listen to Aphex Twin and do drugs with his uptown friends.
Life at home was often tough, and when McMahon went against his father’s wishes and began to pursue a career in music, he smothered anything autobiographical in low fidelity hiss and abstract artwork. After 2009 debut ‘Dia’, ‘Through Donkey Jaw’ (2011) and ‘Spoiler’ (2013), the resplendent, folkier ‘Love’, from 2014, lifted the veil slightly. Now, on ‘Freedom’, it evaporates completely.
McMahon’s face appears, eyes down, in high definition on the sleeve, and its 11 tracks are just as up-close and personal. But it’s the scale of ‘Freedom’’s sound that cements it as an instantaneous classic; far and away McMahon’s most complete work to date. His reedy, beaten-down vocal is so magnificent you wonder where he’s been hiding it all these years, while every track thrums with its own deep groove.
Channelling Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Oasis, Nirvana and – McMahon has said – Michael Jackson and Massive Attack, these songs are vast, luxurious sculptures, made with love at New York’s Electric Lady Studios with producer Chris Coady and an expanded band featuring Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Italian electronic musician Panoram. Clearly, McMahon fed off the energy in those legendary Greenwich Village rooms, and this is a bid to make history of his own.
The record was three years in the making, owing to McMahon’s mother’s diagnosis with terminal cancer. Her voice features on ‘Intro’, reading the words of abstract painter Agnes Martin: “I don’t have any ideas myself, I have a vacant mind”.
This is the state ‘Freedom’ seeks to find: McMahon exorcises every idea he’s ever had about himself, weaving in skin-pricking portraits of dealers, ghosts, vampires, his family, even Jesus Christ himself.
Really, this is a piece of work to dive into and consume whole, but lead single ‘Miki Dora’ – a portrait of the titular bad-guy surfer – is a perfect entry point, a spacey folk song that ebbs and flows like the ocean waves. ‘Blue Rose’ and the transcendent ‘Believe’ address McMahon’s father and mother respectively; ‘Calling Paul The Suffering’ dances a rickety jig; the title track unravels into a sun-baked slow dance, and six-minute closer ‘L.A.’ cruises by like a passing cloud. By the end, McMahon has finally, emphatically unveiled his very singular talent.