A young woman, her milk chocolate skin adorned in exotic, silky fabrics, bellydances against a clear blue sky. Too blue, really. As if the color was oversaturated in a video lab. And of course it is; her green-screened levitation is about as convincing as the Blue’s Clues. For some reason, though, that doesn’t seem to matter. Something about that infectious smile, held by a bold pair of cheekbones like the chain that links her nose to her ear, compels us to stop caring, and follow her, as she leaps across rooftops, flies over rice patties and visits the Seven Wonders of the World. Besides, why worry about realism when it’s all over in three minutes anyway?
These are the images that went through my head during the opening riffs of “Soil to Seed”, off Matthew Dear’s new album Black City. They’re from the music video for Janet Jackson’s “Runaway”. I’m not sure if my description is entirely accurate, but that’s beside the point. Those first few moments of “Soil to Seed”, with their low-key synths, didgeridoo-like sound effects, and pounding swingbeat, bear an uncanny resemblance to “Runaway”, and hearing them poked up a vague memory of catching the video during MTV’s pre-TRL daytime programming, probably after school, sometime during the Clinton presidency. A casual experience only in appearance, these times were pivotal in the formation of my taste and cultural consciousness. You understand, right? Because if you don’t, you might not understand what makes Black City so special.
Not that there isn’t a lot for anyone to love. Over the course of three full-lengths and many, many singles, the Detroit-based producer has perfected a form of glitch-pop that is sleek, sly, airtight, and most of all, versatile. It plays just as well in transit as it does at ease, at loud volumes as well as low. It’s the American Apparel T-shirt of music. Black City continues to demonstrate this, but Dear has loosened the hinges a bit, and packed some muscle to his skeletal sound. The style is more eclectic and variegated. His fey, double-tracked singing is finally showing some emotion, but not too much. The resulting record flows just as effortlessly as Asa Breed and Backstroke before it, but brasher and more effervescent.
Anyone who’s heard “Little People (Black City)”, the album’s de facto lead single, could probably assume as much. This neon-lit, disco epic is decidedly longer than anything Dear’s done before, and also more tuneful. A decided departure for Dear, for sure. But ’80s fetishism is nothing new. Fun as it is, “Little People (Black City)” — like “Slowdance”, the Human League-ish/Depeche Mode-esque ballad — will sound like bandwagon jumping to more discerning indie kids, most of whom were not yet sentient when that decade was happening.
As if answering these tacit criticisms, Dear moves on to the Clinton era in the rest of Black City, and that’s when his album really shines. Opener “Honey” sounds like the end of a Beck LP, with its soft, gloomy groove and monastic background vocals. Then, bursts of static and distant cellos bring to mind early Portishead, as well as the snide vulnerability of Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxing”. That segues into the psychedelic white-man funk of “I Can’t Feel”, evoking Fatboy Slim, Cake, and the Beastie Boys, naturally. Later on, “More Surgery” nods to the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers with its cybernetic paranoia. The laconic bass-line of “Shortwave” is straight off Geto Boys’ Houston rap classic “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta”, while the synthesized gospel at the end recalls Mark Mothersbaugh’s music for the baby-centric Nickelodeon show “Rugrats”: uplifting, but too mechanical and absurd to be palliative. And then, of course, there is the aforementioned “Runaway” imitation.
Now for the caveat: it took me a few listens to pinpoint these references. Dear hasn’t assembled a sonic scrapbook. He’s simply woven threads of the ’90s into his production. And somehow, by collapsing the boundaries of genre and time that divided these sounds, then letting them fall into the mix as normal, everyday, salt-of-the-earth components of songs, Dear provokes a somewhat profound sense of nostalgia. Maybe it’s the sense of discovery, like finding a great filler track you don’t remember on a Garbage album you haven’t heard since high school.
In other words, Black City doesn’t reveal all its treasures on the first spin. Or the second. Matthew Dear, now more than ever, rewards you for devoted listening, with vocal tracks, minor melodies, and atmospheric shimmers that lay buried, waiting to be found. And still, there is no guarantee that even the most assiduous aural spelunking will turn up anything more meaningful than an exceedingly fun, stylish, and smart foray into pop futurism. (Sometimes, it might even reveal a weak spot, like the head-smackingly dumb bass-line in “Little People (Black City)”.)
But if “Soil to Seed” leads to dreams of Janet Jackson dancing against the Great Pyramid of Giza, you heard it here first.