Matthew Dear Matthew DearBlack City
When Matthew Dear titled his second album “Asa Breed” (Ghostly, 2007), he might have done so purely by chance, as he himself once said; Asa Breed is a background character from the Kurt Vonnegut novel Cat’s Cradle. The title came after flipping through the book or remembering a passage—it doesn’t really matter which—but “Black City” isn’t a chance name at all. The reference to a dark, abstract city, supported by Will Calcutt’s almost expressionistic cover design, just can’t be fortuitous. The album is urban and thick, filled with an atmosphere somewhere between noir and toxic, and it definitely sounds too New York not to end up connecting the dots and concluding that everything is closely related. Not in vain has Dear finally settled down in the city of skyscrapers after many years living on the outskirts of Detroit, and it is this life experience, new routines, new streets, that has finally inspired the psycho-geography of this second attempt to overcome the techno producer phase and consolidate himself as a resourceful songwriter. An attempt that is not as daring as the previous one, which was a somersault without a net that turned out wonderfully, but with an added difficulty that is even more dangerous than changing electronic grammar: that of evolving without repeating yourself, that of expanding the limits of pop expression without showing weakness. What is in play in “Black City” isn’t Matthew Dear’s ability to show that his register goes beyond time bombs intended for techno clubs, like the “Mouth to Mouth” that he put out as Audion; what is in play is his prestige as a composer, lyricist, and pop sharpshooter. One album can turn out well for anybody. The next albums only turn out well for the best musicians.
So this test has been passed: “Black City” is competent, rich, and sufficiently far removed from “Asa Breed” (at the same time that it shares a family resemblance) that it’s worth holding out a gentlemanly hand to Matthew Dear to congratulate him on a job well done. But this album deserves more than a mere gesture of assent. The more you listen to it, the more you perceive that it goes much further than just repeating the formula “Asa Breed + slight variations.” Asa Breed was a European work, perhaps influenced by the passion for synth-pop and glam that was always there among the Detroit techno pioneers, and it had an air of Brian Eno and David Bowie (plus a little Talking Heads), but “Black City” is better understood within the context of New York. The background scenery has a lot to do with the disco music of the withdrawal to the underground at the end of the 70’s, mutant and jungle-inspired, with a cutting-edge rock sound applied to the black music of the moment. If “Asa Breed” was a cross between Roxy Music and Carl Craig, “Black City” is somewhere between Arthur Russell and James Murphy, with a few drops of krautrock. It is also framed in an arty context, but the vitality and optimism of previous songs turns more sinister here, occasionally Gothic, colder, but also more sincere and human. It can’t be said for sure that the Matthew Dear who writes these lyrics does so from a purely autobiographical point of view (check out that ruthless “I can't be the one to tell you everything's wrong,” in “Slowdance”) but he does construct a mental world that fits in perfectly with the sound texture of this black city that isn’t chaotic, but which also isn’t a sweet glass and cement arcadia.
The album is put out by Ghostly, obviously (he co-founded the label), but it could also be the material that Matthew Dear would give to DFA if by chance they were interested in commissioning him to write something for posterity: the most markedly rhythmic moments, like “I Can't Feel”, led by a funky, heavy, groovy bass line that twists and turns like an asp, or the abrupt “You Put a Spell on Me” denote erudition, formal seriousness, and an undercurrent of hedonism. One can’t help noticing the kraut references (Neu! and Harmonia, basically) on “More Surgery”, “Monkey” and the Kraftwerk influences at the end of “Shortwave”. “Soil to Seed” tends toward boogie-funk with a brief nod to Prince, (one of the most frequently referred-to musicians of 2010, even though it’s sometimes on the Q.T.), and then there are the two most absolutely memorable moments of the album. One is the first single, “Little People (Black City)”, almost ten minutes of pre-techno and post-disco romanticism reminiscent of Metro Area, in which the sweet harmony of the two best Dears come together, that of metronomic dance music and that of immaculate melody. The second moment is the real gem of the album—as the title of the song states, “Gem” is a torch song led by a gloomy piano and spectral sound effects (rustling, laughs), giving the measure of Matthew Dear’s future potential beyond techno: if the muses keep smiling on him, he may just become the Brian Eno of his generation. Javier Blánquez