Talkhouse writers are musicians, and they write with a passion, insight, poetry and empathy that you’re just not going to find anywhere else. That’s why we’d rank the best writing in the Talkhouse with the best music writing anywhere. This week, we’re celebrating some of our favorite Talkhouse pieces of 2014.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief
When we dream of escaping ourselves, escaping the mundane beginnings that swaddle us, from our earliest embarrassments on into our teenage years, when we dream of throwing off the shackles of our earliest identity, the small town that oppressed us and in subtle-and-unsubtle-ways imprinted us with its definition of itself, throwing off even the scent or opinions of our family, when we actively imagine who we want to be and let our art be the symbol of that desire, when we do these things we become inspirations or beacons for anyone else who desires an active and not passive reimagining of identity and possibility, just as those who themselves dreamed of escape or transformation were beacons or models for us.
I say, “Look, I am a poor, squat boy from the North, I never knew anything, not a single thing, I pissed my pants when I was six and again when I was 12, I never saw a real city until I was 15, I sprung from the most uninspired soil, but when I sing I can be anything or anyone I want!”
At first, for many of us, this pretension, this flight of fancy, is not particularly captivating nor inspirational to witness, and it might be best to pretend in our bedrooms and basements; in fact, only the singer who is singing might hear some possibility of future transcendence or even an ember wishing to someday burst back into a flame, though of course some of us just burst out fully formed, no embryonic period. But for those of us who had only faith, I say this: Pretend long enough, and smart enough, and hard enough, and you can transform yourself into the thing you are pretending to be.
I write this because I think authenticity or lack thereof is a very provincial and suffocating smear and one always smeared on artists, especially young artists! For we all pretend, we all are looking to escape our skins, to transmogrify: it’s in Christ’s story as much as it is in Lou Reed’s: that awe-inspiring transfiguration when someone takes flight and floats into something he is not.
Even the singers who were authentic, like those old blues singers, were pretending, creating through song a world that responds to universal laws: injecting magic, horror, justice and revelation into their oppressed lives — when Son House sings, he blots out the klansman with the rope, the sheriff with his club. But once the song ends, the shadow of the lawman’s nightstick springs back into shape. Even preachers pretend, I suspect: they pretend to embody or be infused with the authority of some cosmic arch-law that supersedes the ones we create and enforce.
So: the, ummm, positive capability of pretension: this is the first pontification I came to over the course of the last two weeks, while I listened to Love, this new record by Amen Dunes. Amen Dunes, born Damon McMahon but possessing the sheer pretentious (!) audacity to change his name, to take a name that phonically reminds one of Amon Duul II, though he does not make music that resembles Amon Duul II, except of course when the music does incorporate Kraut-tropes a little bit: for example, that drony, klakkity-klak motor-death ending of the second-to-last song, entitled “I Can’t Dig It.”
He uses terms like “dig it.” He’s got Dunes in his name, and I don’t think he’s thinking of the Oregon Dunes. Of course, if Dune was singular, I would have come to him much earlier. So we know right there that he’s looking back while walking forward.
Amen Dunes is a human who writes songs inspired by the great songs of the 20th century, songs that I was certainly not exposed to as a young boy, or a teenager, nor even a young man. It was not until my late twenties that something happened: great songs were everywhere: the songs of Nina Simone, of Kraftwerk, of Mulatu Astatke: fuggin’ Ethiopiques, fuggin’ Orange Juice, fuggin’ Nigerian fuzz. Bill fuggin’ Fay! It was like the renaissance again, all sounds from all places from all times stewing around.
I love this record, not for its reflection of McMahon’s playlists, though I suspect he is a keen music lover, and must spend a good portion of his day listening, as we all must now do; I respect it for the sense that he is comfortable and adept at losing himself, letting go of himself, allowing influence to permeate his songs and his singing, and I also hear in this record that he is in a very interesting phase: that phase where a person starts to shed those influences and becomes, really persuasively, his or her own voice.
So when you listen to Love, you will hear a slew of influences: some of those phasey, watery guitars sound like Kurt’s — Kurt V., not Kurt C. — and some of the piano sounds like it was plucked from a Cairo studio in 1967, warm and round, present but not spiky, the notes like a woman’s feet shuffling up and down a staircase, sometimes hopping up three steps, sometimes taking a half-step, never predictable. I also think they acted out a scene from White Light/White Heat in which John Cale asks the violins to squeak, and I think two grown men closed their eyes in 2013 and pretended that they were Nico in the song “Green Eyes,” and in that jump they summon her spirit, they transform, I swear it to be true, I swear she is in the room between them, a third form haunting the elegiac number, as the record see-saws between bright ‘n hopefuls and charcoal-grey gloomy downers.
I know I’m over my self-imposed word limit and there are only three people in the world left that will read a digital essay that is over 1,000 words, and if you are one of those three, I salute and thank you, and I’ll wrap it up soon, but I’ve got to single out the song “Love.” Good God, it’s good, God. It gets me every time, it does. I think it’s because of the see-saw in the record, as I’ve said, between sweet pop songs and some unsettling seismic dirge, and it builds up and then you get hit with one of those career-high songs that just cap the record and declare, after some fucking around, that this man loves himself and is strong enough to pretend to be one of the greats and in doing so perhaps will become one himself.