Although Damon McMahon cites Tom Petty, Nirvana, Oasis, Massive Attack, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jackson as “mainstream” influences for his new album, Freedom, the songs point in another direction: David Gray. It’s in his voice, which whispers, wails and shivers with vibrato on demand.
Freedom is McMahon’s first album in four years. His career trajectory is firmly in the category we’ve seen so often in the 21s century: serious folk-pop-rock-songwriter in the mode of Bon Iver. He even recorded his first album in a cabin in the Catskills; his version of Bon Iver’s cabin in Wisconsin. But like all artists in the mode of Bon Iver, McMahon eventually came crashing back to earth with a mission to write more accessible songs.
The result of this earth-bound mission is the sonically pleasing Freedom, which was released by Sacred Bones on March 30. Gone are the agonizing, slow, rambling folk numbers. Arriving on the scene, rhythm and guitars that keep the music speeding along. Like many talented musicians who consciously decide to become more accessible, McMahon’s music soars with the new design. Although the Freedom of the album signifies many things, from spiritual liberation to losing the agonizing weight which accompanied his mother’s terminal illness, it also points to an artistic freedom to create pop songs for audiences, not critics.
There is still a spareness at the core of the songs on Freedom, but McMahon delicately builds layers of sound that build to massive crescendos. If he had chosen to add traditional pop-choruses to the songs, they would veer straight into the arena rock territory of Arcade Fire, but McMahon opts instead to use musical choruses and steadily let the air out of the balloon instead.
There are several standout songs on Freedom. On “Believe,” McMahon lays out his faith: “I believe, can’t deny it, seen heaven don’t get down. When I was a kid I was afraid to die, but I growed up now.” “Miki Dora” is about the legendary surf outlaw who was a secret con man. “Skipping School” opens with a repetitive echo and then surges forward on the pulse of the rhythm section. “L.A.” is a sprawling, six-minute, reggae-tinged ode. If there’s one song here that would have ruled the radio in 1999 it would be “Blue Rose,” a song about McMahon’s thorny relationship with his father. “I will stick around,” he sings, “I’m the baddest, stoniest thing in town.”
The music has a radiant, sun-dappled quality that is associated with White Ladder-era Gray. McMahon’s voice is also so close to Gray’s that on parts of the album you could easily confuse the two. David Gray had a platinum album when he modulated his own folk tendencies in a similar way, and McMahon’s Freedom will surely wind up on the several year-end best lists. The musical landscape has shifted, however, which will prevent McMahon from getting the radio play that the record deserves.
Calling Paul the Suffering