Moving from Ann Arbour and the Detroit area to New York, where he has established himself, has definitely had a decisive effect on Matthew Dear’s music. When you listen to “Beams”, it is impossible to deny the evidence: the breath of the city that never sleeps has managed to slip its way into each and every one of the songs, so that it becomes the proper continuation of “Black City” (Ghostly, 2010). There are variations, of course - it could be no other way with an artist who has never been known for standing still on the cutting-edge pop scene. In general terms, we could say that the variations are in aspects that are difficult to measure, such as the intensity and the direction of the light, the mood, and the architectural height of his songs. But even so, Matthew Dear continues to create music with his physical surroundings in mind. If “Black City” was a portrait of a gigantic, high-rise, nocturnal city – a New York of discotheques, midnight and causal encounters - “Beams” sounds more cosmopolitan, more daytime, solitary yet open-minded. It is as simple as changing his neighbourhood, company, and timetables. Everything else is still Matthew Dear, perhaps the best heir to David Byrne in decades.
Since “Asa Breed” (Ghostly, 2007), the album with which he started to separate his two languages – techno for Audion, pop with sharp corners for Matthew Dear – the man with the mussed hair seems to have two main musical references: Brian Eno and Talking Heads (or let’s say Brian Eno’s productions for Talking Heads). “Beams” sounds less Eno this time, but it is much more Byrne in terms of loading up the songs –less space for the unexpected to occur – and dipping them in mutant funk instead of radiant pop. In comparison with “Black City”, the more art-disco influence in the line of Arthur Russell disappears, but what is taken away by that is added to elsewhere, with a heavy dose of post-punk and post-disco. One might think that Matthew Dear is coming late to the reclaiming of this sound in this city, after bands like The Rapture or the sorely-missed LCD Soundsystem did so well for so long, but even so, “Beams” stands up as an album that doesn’t depend as much on history (older or more recent) as it does on its own virtues. If Dear wants to be an island, a sharpshooter, he has succeeded.
There are two crucial elements in “Beams”. One is Dear’s way of singing (if we can call it that): as already happened with “Asa Breed” and “Black City”, he seems to mutter while biting his tongue, taking advantage of his deep voice, getting the words out with turns of diction that make it hard to understand exactly what he’s saying. This perhaps accentuates the intention of his entire lyrical register, which is to transmit a very private message of disorientation and fortuitous encounters in a big city. Dear presents himself as a lost soul searching - hence titles like “Headcage”, which had already appeared on an advance EP a few months ago, “Up & Out” and “Ahead Of Myself” - one that enjoys the randomness, once he is found. The second crucial factor in “Beams” is the sound itself: seemingly, it is more luminous than in “Black City”, although this can be qualified, as it is also a dense sound full of bass with different textures –from the raw punk bass of “Earthforms”, which harks back to the Joy Division of “Unknown Pleasures” (as “Do The Right Thing” does to “Closer”), to the very hard, almost dubstep bass of “Overtime”. This variety of beats helps the album to move in a straight, constant line, without distractions but with turns of the head; starting off like a shot with the fabulous “Her Fantasy”, the first time (as I recall) that Matthew Dear has accepted influences from italodisco – the synth bass line is similar to that of “Hypnotic Tango”.
When the darkness weighs down the light, “Beams” is an album with clear post-punk signs and there again one notices the influence of Talking Heads. When the tangle of beats unwinds, “Beams” accepts the language of post-disco, dance music for early in the evening or a private loft – as in “Up & Out”, which sounds like Chic, or “Ahead Of Myself”, which is sort of a tribute to the origins of hip hop from his own particular perspective. It continues accordingly until the unexpected conclusion of “Temptation”, which has a very New Order title but ends up sounding Primal Scream (from the “Screamadelica” period, of course). Whenever Matthew Dear releases a pop album, there are logical questions to be asked: will it be like this the next time? Will he go back to techno? There have already been three titles since “Asa Breed” and he hasn’t released anything as Audion since 2010; so probably yes, it will be like this next time, with some nuances, maturing his personal voice. In view of the results, here’s hoping that he keeps on like this for years to come.