Matthew Dear’s CV certainly doesn’t give the impression of a shrinking violet. On the contrary, he is well regarded as a talented producer and multi-instrumentalist, not to mention co-founder of pioneering, independent record label Ghostly International, home to a number of other high-profile electronic artists, such as Gold Panda and School Of Seven Bells.
As a solo artist, Dear remains somewhat of an enigma, with much of his work up until now, overshadowed by a heavy debt owed to his electro art-pop forebears. He started out as a DJ, and much of his work outside of that profession has been marked by a hangover from those days; Dear metaphorically carrying his record collection around with him and wearing his influences on his sleeve. Maybe you can credit much of his oracularity to this. Indeed if you close your eyes and listen to his early output, you can almost feel the distant, melodic hum of a nightclub, the lights slowly strobing across the dancefloor, as he deftly crossfades between Talking Heads, Inner City and Neu!.
That’s not to say that this transparency detracts from his sound, just that such obvious heritage has often made his own voice less distinct. These influences which were so overt in his earlier, more experimental, output began to dissipate somewhat with the release of 2010’s beautiful Black City. If the title wasn’t implication enough, the album formulates itself as a greyscale digital landscape, which is dark, unsettling and more self-assured than anything that preceded it.
Tellingly, the cover artwork for Beams, his fifth solo outing, is an impressionistic portrait of Dear himself, his face illuminated by thick brushstrokes and bright colours, still a little indistinct but bold nevertheless. This artwork is a good primer for the mood that runs through the 11 transformative electro-pop journeys which follow. It captures Dear at the moment when he moves out of the shadows, digests the inheritance of his influences and creates something which is definitively his own.
This confidence is no more apparent than on album opener “Her Fantasy”, a six-minute dancefloor overture, which tips its cap to his Detroit techno roots in its opening few seconds, as the dim and distant whistles of an acid-house rave slowly fade up, but hints towards the surprisingly buoyant album which is to follow. This driving, polyphonic bounce runs through the album and continues into tracks like “Up & Out” and “Fighting is Futile”. On the latter Dear sings, “If all I had was this / Then I’d feel satisfied”, and you find it hard to disagree with his feeling of contentment.
Elsewhere, the influences that have shaped Dear’s career to date are still audible, but seem to have finally coalesced into a sound which is at once familiar and yet totally his own. Earthforms channels the moody basslines of The Cure, whilst “Headcage” opens like Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody”, before transforming into startling, sexy electro-funk, where we find Dear in full party mode, solemnly intoning, “Your mamma won’t care if you stay out tonight / Throw your rocks in the air, let’s go have fun tonight”.
Of course, that is not to say that everything has changed. Dear’s vocals, with their intriguing solemnity and gritty depths are still present. In the past they have often been discordant against the thick waves of melodic synth-pop, but here this unique vocal style (which lies somewhere between a sexed-up Stephen Merritt and a modulated Leonard Cohen) works in dynamic synthesis with both the music and his more upbeat lyrical intentions. There are also bleaker moments to be found: the aggressive wub-wub bass of “Overtime”, the contemplative “Ahead of Myself” and the jet black dirge-dub of “Shake Me Up”. These are the closest the album gets to emulating the slow burn that was evident on Black City and hints towards an intriguing darkness which simmers near the surface, but never threatens to overpower.
With Beams, Matthew Dear has created his most intoxicating, accomplished and immediate paean to all that has come before him and everything that now stands in front of him. His skills as DJ and producer are never more apparent, as he takes the listener on a hypnotic and melodic journey, which builds, one superlative track at a time. The cliche goes that it is often darkest before the dawn and if Black City represents the dark night of Dear’s soul, Beams is the neon-lit dawn of an accomplished artist at the height of his creative powers.