Album Review: Matthew Dear – Beams

[Ghostly; 2012]

There’s long been a paucity of male American synthpop artists. I’m talking about the kind of techno-indebted electropop proffered by the likes of Cut Copy and Miami Horror (Australia), Hot Chip, Grum, and the Pet Shop Boys (UK), John Talabot (Spain), Matias Aguayo (Argentina), and Tesla Boy (Russia), just to name a few. Sure, we’ve got a couple big names stateside — I’m thinking of Nicolas Jaar and Dan Deacon especially — but it’s still easy to feel like the US is simply behind the curve when it comes to synthpop sung by men.

Which is one of the reasons I’m grateful for Matthew Dear, who’s been releasing a steady stream of experimental electronic music over the past several years. One listen to “Little People (Black City)” from 2010’s darkly excellent Black City reveals his versatility. Here, he hops from one bass groove to the next and trades synth hooks like playing cards, all the while growling in his Texan drawl that “I have never lost my fluid” and insisting that his latest lady “love me like a clown” before getting “carried away” and ultimately deciding that there’s “too much communication” because he’s “your other man.” It’s a ten-minute trip through the dirtiest parts of Dear’s mind that leaves the listener not overwhelmed but rather… intrigued? Craving a cigarette? The song ends with snippets of dialogue that sound like they’re coming from some seedy nightclub stairwell, the voices slowed-down and curdled as though you were overhearing the chatter during a particularly intense ketamine trip — a conceit that makes sense, given that it’s immediately followed up by the syrupy-smooth “Slowdance.”

Two tracks later, “You Put A Smell On Me” finds him repeatedly mentioning a “little red nightgown” as though he can’t wait to pull it right off. Dear’s not afraid to get dark or delve into base pleasures, but he’ll always make sure to make the journey actually fun (as opposed to overly menacing and off-putting). On Black City more than any other of his prior releases, Dear reminds us that despite America’s Puritanical views of sex and the expression thereof, there are plenty of us who are just as lasciviously liberated as our European and South American peers.

All of which brings us to his latest album, Beams. The cover is more colorful than the black-and-white artwork that adorned Black City, but it’s also more sinister. A disheveled watercolor portrait depicts the singer with a nasty black eye (literally), a swollen lip, and a veritable rainbow of purple and blue hues that look an awful lot like bruises. But it opens with the strangely soothing synth pads of “Her Fantasy” and before long brings near-falsetto crooning and a goddamn choir into the mix. Dear seems to have gotten more lyrically introspective as well: “Do I feel love like all of the others or this feeling only mine?” over a snappy rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place on Talabot’s recent Fin. The jungle-party vibes continue on “Fighting Is Futile” and “Up & Out,” the latter of which finds Dear viewing his hedonism with an unexpectedly critical eye: “Wasting the days sucking my thumb, sleeping around, and nothing gets done.” Disco-ready guitar stabs and straight-outta-the-’80s synth bassline reflect this happy-sad self-contradiction, uptempo enough to warrant inclusion in a DJ’s set but with a languid vocal delivery that casts a sobering shadow over the otherwise funkadelic proceedings.

It’s not that Beams is a lighter listen than Black City, but it’s certainly more honest (“Now, could you trust someone as suspicious as me?” he asks at one point). If Black City was the drunken after-hours party, then Beams is what it sounds like when the hangover’s passed the next afternoon and you can think back to the previous night’s events with a bit of clarity. Beams is also no less disorienting than its predecessor, but again, it’s a different kind of dizziness; the glitchy intro to “Get The Rhyme Right” is new, for instance, as is the interplay between droning guitars and keys and squelching FX noises during the track’s lengthy outro. And I doubt that the Dear of two years ago would have been so willing to include a refrain like, “But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.” Of course, even when he promises to “lick your wounds to get blood on my teeth,” he does so to the tune of a chipper chord progression that seems far removed from the smoky shadows of his earlier stuff.

All in all, Beams strikes at the heart of the struggles we face with maturity–namely, that it rarely happens overnight. Sometimes, we want things even though we know they’re wrong; other times, we don’t really know what we want, and when we try to articulate our desires, they come out contradictory or even nonsensically. “Close your eyes to look at me/ I’m the world inside your sleep,” he sings on “Do The Right Thing.” Turns out this hedonist has a heart after all, and he had to sacrifice exactly zero of the pleasures of his previous albums to figure it out. There might be a grand metaphor for America’s ongoing crisis of conscience in our post-Patriot Act national hangover, but frankly, I’ll be having too much fun enjoying this album to care.