Having a family turns you upside down and inside out. One minute, you’re happily motoring on, with your inner compass navigating you, more or less, in the right direction, before suddenly stepping into an emotional magnetic field and veering completely off course. What’s more, no one is ever prepared both physically and emotionally. The joy, the fear, and the extraordinary levels of tiredness strip you bare at hugely unexpected moments. It’s like going out to buy a pint of milk and suddenly finding yourself freezing cold, high on a Himalayan mountain with only a plastic spoon.
Since the release of 2012’s Beams, DJ, producer and art-pop free spirit Matthew Dear, has found himself in exactly that situation having spent the last six years raising a family as well as involving himself in smaller, less all-encompassing musical projects. As a result, each track on new album Bunny feels like a memento of time spent both present and absent from music. Naturally, during a period filled with such musical and personal discovery, the music on Bunny swings from vivid, avant-pop to blunt techno to dreamy ambiance. It’s a vibrant, eclectic mix with Dear’s voice at its heart; a voice that is intrinsic to the success of the whole thing as he spins from restless ramblings to profound, heartfelt statements about the people he holds dear.
Opening with “Bunny’s Dream”, a track that cooly balances meditative ambient pop with urgent, dancefloor-ready beats, as if the two sides of Dear’s artistic personalities are finally engaged in conversation. Featuring a tumbling female vocal sample that cushions its fall on a bed of crystalline guitar notes, it opens like a series of contemplative sighs. As the music draws breath, Dear’s, low vocals resonate, like a declaration from the heavens. Steadily, a pressing beat and whirring synths give it extra wind before a flurry of punched pads rains down upon it.
After the opening track, it is pointless even to try and predict which path he is going to follow next. “Calling” has an almost old-time swing feel with jaunty piano accompanying Dear’s conversational croon. That is until Dear playfully empties his whole bag of production tricks as crackling atmospherics fuse with expansive synths and a driving indie bass line. The throbbing, menace of “Can You Rush Them” with its industrial drums and buzzing synths could be a Nine Inch Nails remix of a deep cut from Bowie’s Outside album. It also marks one of Dear’s most political statements as he calls for people “to take back the streets”.
“Echo” sees Dear immerse the listener in those streets but this time by inhabiting a character. In this case, a young street hustler out to make a quick buck in dark alleys, desensitized to the seedier underbelly of the city he does business in — think Joe Dallesandro, as immortalized in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”.
“Modafinil Blues” is one of the darker, bleaker songs on the album as Dear sounds like he’s stumbling through an insomnia ravaged hallucination. Dear’s low, lounge vocals veer from shadowy and detached to pained, operatic howls as inward conflict and withdrawal seem to claw at his soul. “What You Don’t Know” takes the trippy blues house blueprint of Alabama 3, planting Dears vocals high on top like a priest preaching from his elevated pulpit.
“Horses” starts as a stripped back electro ballad with smooth, circling synths and lightly strummed acoustic guitar. The pared-down approach suits the emotive meaning behind the song, as he compares the relationship he has with his wife to the steadfast relationship of two majestic horses. Dear sounds both full of love and heartbroken as he tries not to dwell on the sudden realization that there is no such thing as being together forever. Halfway through the emotion seems to get the better of him as his vocals stutter and distort allowing Tegan and Sara’s beautiful harmonies to take over, heightening the emotional impact.
As “Horses” drifts to its conclusion, Dear amps up the energy. “Moving Man” echoes the celebratory, electro-funk sound of classic Prince but with a tech-house edge. Fittingly, it’s a song constantly in motion as if trying to reach a yet to be determined destination. “Duke of Dens” bursts into life like an exploding firework. Energetic handclaps coupled with the rhythmic pulse of a trip-hop bassline give it a certain mid-’90s dance feel. “Electricity” sounds like a Talking Heads take on P-funk with thick, grooving bass, jittery beats, and Dear’s David Byrne-like yelp.
On the album’s home straight, Dear’s lyrics become more personal. Marrying simple, crisp snares, a clean guitar riff, and understated synths, “Kiss Me Forever” is, presumably a paean to Dear’s wife as he seems to assure her that “the demons are dead”. The dark, synthpop of “Bad Ones” sees Dear once again joined by Tegan and Sara on an admission that sometimes the unpredictable, impulsive nature of a partner is the twisted knot that binds the relationship together. (“If I was one of the good ones / I don’t think you’d like me”). Fittingly, album closer “Before I Go”, finds Dear pining for his family as he declares “I want to spend more time with you” over a steady beat that rubs shoulders with bright electronics and snipped vocal loops.
Matthew Dear has written an album in Bunny that wholly reflects the person he is now. Throughout, there is a palpable sense that having a family has changed him but certainly not at the expense of the music. Rather, the changes in his life have brought everything into sharper focus, reflected in the depth and breadth of the music on his best album yet.