2007’s Asa Breed saw Matthew Dear reassign the priorities of his solo identity. The funky microhouse and techno minimalism which served to structure his first two solo albums was repurposed to serve as the hooky color of an album filled with pop arrangements. Dear’s vocals moved to the fore, singing verses and choruses like a confident frontman, and he followed through on the record’s pop ambitions by touring with a live band called Matthew Dear’s Big Hands. Asa Breed’s follow up, Black City, could be expected to continue the trajectory further into pop territory, but those who know Dear know him to be creatively restless, an artist who follows his muse under numerous aliases like Audion, False, and Jabberjaw. Black City confirms the continuation of this restlessness, moving the catchy qualities from his previous album into sexier, darker, and altogether edgier territory. It is strange music which sinks its hooks in on first listen and pulls you into the immersive alternative reality of the titular Black City.
Black City is comprised of about three different kinds of tracks – slow dirges, electro-pop, and bouncy funk – but with plenty of cross pollination. The dirges shuffle along, punctuated by ethereal synths, and chronicle the retreat of a character looking back and writing the longview narrative of mismatched dispositions, emotionally bargaining with acceptance with lines like “I can’t be the one to tell you everything’s wrong” and “All my sad songs can’t make you change/They’ll just keep on pushing you further away.” His electro-pop songs percolate along with treble heavy patterns and grounded by punchy beats, frequently slashed through with buzzsaw keyboards. Sexy romp “You Put a Smell On Me” pushes forward seductively, shelving the ego for the id, ending in a beseeching repetition of “little red nightgown”. The tracks with funk and bounce see Dear really melding his different personas and pushing into unique territory. “I Can’t Feel” pulls your ears in 5 different directions with syncopated electronics, a nosediving bassline, and some rhythmic babble, and this all happens before the vocals proper drop in, preening slickly about friends, lust, and seeing under people’s clothes. “Little People (Black City)” is Berlin-Trilogy space disco unfolding as a three-part suite, slowly trading in the smooth for the strident along the way. “Shortwave” centers around a slinky bassline, telling a story of a request for a partner in crime, adding distinct layers of rhythm without turning the whole affair into a wall of sound, until the last minute abruptly turns into a cherubic chant with its head in the clouds. It’s clear that Dear’s idea of what can be included in pop songs is much wider than most anybody else’s, and that this is pop only by process of elimination, since it couldn’t possibly qualify as anything else.
The city Dear is thinking of is nondescript, more of an emotional territory than a physical place. His lyrics are simple, but fairly inscrutable. While this is usually a bad thing, it works well in this context, lending more weight to the paradox which makes this music, and urbane life, so attractive – the unsettling pulse of teeming life and the beckoning glow of the unknown. So many things are possible when you go into the city at night – sensory deprivation, exploration, discovery, sensory overload, memory loss, sex, corporeal threats, death –and most of them get more dangerous as the night becomes more darker. Cities are known for bringing massive amounts of people together. This happens best during daylight, but in cities at night, people live near high times and temptation. Long-term stability of the sort that individual identity is built from is subject to the disintegrating forces of nighttime pressures. The concerns and neuroses on Black City are informed by these tensions.
Dear is mighty versatile vocally, and the criticisms of detachedness are unwarranted. Singing in a moaning, croaking baritone which he also supplements with backing vocals in falsetto or bass, he comes off sounding worldly experienced on one hand, but world weary on the other. He also isn’t afraid to create rhythmic bits from his voice, sometimes approaching an after midnight-Bobby McFerrin. Over the course of an album, the many subtle permutations of his voice combine into a composite of emotional states. At turns drained (“Honey”), manic (“Little People (Black City)”), skuzzy (“Shortwave”), and contrite (“Gem”), there’s plenty of depth here, and unlike many of his indie contemporaries, he isn’t afraid to express the manhood inherent in his voice.
Even if at times this sounds reminiscent of Scary Monsters-era Bowie, freaky Prince, or Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, this isn’t a spot-the-influence affair. Black City could never have been made by Bowie, Prince, or Byrne because it’s so infused by Dear’s sensibilities. It’s the sort of album which reaches back and forward in equal measure, applying what’s known about past songwriting to invigorate the present day. Executed confidently and without self-consciousness, Dear’s artistry makes James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, the indie media-annointed leading light of electronics-infused songwriting, look like a poser and a hack. Although it may be an emotionally tricky passage, all roads to the future lead through Black City.