For most of the last decade, Matthew Dear eluded easy categorization by constantly morphing between his various alter egos. He spent time working as False, a relatively straightforward representation focused on the producer’s allegiance to Detroit techno, followed by the whimsical Jabberjaw and the obtuse Audion. But since 2003’s Leave Luck to Heaven, his best efforts have appeared under his own name. Shifting from the pedantic Audion moniker used on last year’s It’s Full of Blinding Light EP, Dear returns to the wide-open emotional resonance that transformed 2007’s Asa Breed into one of the truly iconographic releases in any of the various techno subgenres.
This time, however, Dear’s foregone the stilted attempts to propagate traditional song structures. Where his last album contained overt bridges and refrains, Black City revels in layers of dense textures. It’s also darker as its title suggests, even secretive in places, begging to be listened to on a good set of headphones. In this context, the multiple levels unravel to reward each subsequent listen with new perspectives. “I Can’t Feel,” an early highlight, sets voyeuristic lyrics — “Mind over lust, hard to unfold/ Clearly we can see under your clothes” — against the title’s numb confession to explore the sterility a person can feel in a society inundated with sensuality.
On “Little People (Black City),” the song’s protagonist initially laments a lost love — “What has he done/ Lost the right one?” — but his poignant sense of regret devolves into the bizarre couplet, “Because I was born into it/ I have never lost my fluid.” Here, again, Dear seems to be commenting on modernity, but this time he’s describing the anxiety of separation rather than the numbing difficulty an individual can face in search of connection. Rather than resolving this tension, Dear simply observes it in all its unfiltered madness, as the melody advances and retreats, forming a hypnotic, ebbing counterbalance to the insistent mélange of arrhythmic jungle beats and ending with a swirling chorus of ethereal voices.
With his multi-faceted sound yet singular vision, Dear has few peers in the techno subgenres he mines for inspiration. Still, he remains as elusive and malleable as ever. Rather than fixing his place in electronic music infamy, he continues to chart new territory, using his latest album to highlight sonic textures and what they seem to suggest about a metaphorical city. Working within those constraints, he’s captured the nuance of living in many real cities and, in so doing, has crafted one of the stronger releases you’ll hear this year.