Matthew Dear, Black City

[Ghostly International]

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Matthew Dear’s 2007 full-length Asa Breed was an affecting sidestep from his dance floor work, a quirky pop album that leaned heavily on the producer’s baritone croak and world-weary lyrics. In many ways it felt like an assertion, with Dear looking wide-eyed at new opportunities afforded by his then impending move to New York City; “Deserter,” for example, included motivational couplets like, “Don’t be afraid/This is what you’ve been saving for.” Black City is a logical sequel, both sonically and lyrically. Dear’s Asa Breed narrator has clearly landed in a confusing spot, and the record’s moodiness is reflective of it.

In a recent interview, the producer recalled an epiphany listening to a demo of “You Put a Smell on Me” on the subway, looking out at New York: “It just all made sense. I was like, ‘This song is the city. It’s synthetic. It’s Blade Runner.'” Black City is definitely an urban record, multifaceted and slightly schizophrenic. It’s covered in the kind of pop sheen you might expect from such a typically clean techno producer, but it’s also frequently dissonant and abrasive. Its hooks are wonky ones, usually maintaining an icy distance reminiscent of Gary Numan or David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, both of which are acknowledged influences. You can sing along to the “Bum-de-dum” refrain on “Slowdance,” but good luck commiserating with the performer.

This isn’t to suggest Black City is totally barren, but rather that it often feels like a series of deeply personal vignettes conjoined by a few widescreen thrillers. “Little People (Black City)” is the album’s beating heart, a multi-movement disco-punk opus that recalls DFA remixes in its velocity and breadth. It’s probably the clearest exposition on the record’s undercurrents, with Dear seemingly caught up in an internal struggle about his entitlement to the city. “Because I was born into it/I have never lost my fluid,” he chants midway through, sounding slightly jealous of those lucky enough to have grown up in the heart of a confusing place. The tone eventually becomes resilient, as the track culminates in a repeated “It’s miiiiiiine” atop Dear’s insistence that he’s “another man.” Taken as a single, it’s an uplifting piece with crossover appeal, however its early placement in the album suggests otherwise — things don’t get much brighter.

After “Little People,” the record slides into the sexbot industrial of “You Put a Smell on Me,” in which Dear sings about a “big black car” and a “little red nightgown” amid squalls of compression. On the slowly shuffling “More Surgery”, Dear poignantly wonders whether his inadequacies could be solved via science. The record concludes with the beatless, pensive powerballad “Gem,” recorded during the Asa Breed sessions. It’s a fantastic conclusion, largely because it’s so different from any of the preceding tracks. The lyrics are upfront and sobering, the lush arrangement vocal and piano-led. Without knowing when it was recorded, it would seem Dear’s austere voice is finally opening up: “Who can I talk with today? Why am I still the same?” he laments.

As an Asa Breed remnant, though, “Gem” seems positively heartbreaking, like facing up to the possibility that perhaps the younger you was wiser. Then again, Dear’s Black City is a dehumanizing place, and the producer’s skin is getting thicker as a result. The record makes few compromises, and it’s often an uncomfortable listen, but this seems to be part of the point. Black City sacrifices universality in its struggle to make a more personal document.

mark august  on September 29, 2010 at 8:15 AM

this album is such a grower!
might be uncomfortable at first, but give the lot some time; they unfold themsleves as addictive pieces of music; very suitable for carrides btw!

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