Through 10 years, three recording aliases, and four proper full-lengths, Matthew Dear remains a cipher by design. From the early stanchions of microhouse and late-wave Detroit density to Beams’ alt-pop workouts, twixt the giddily toothsome 80s funk workout of his 2003 breakout single “Dog Days,” to “Her Fantasy’s” coying pleas for connection among the club’s anonymous masses — it’s difficult to apprehend who Dear wishes to be as a performer, what he’d like us to see and hear, and how the extant psychic remainder should make us move or feel. The chromatose disfigurations of Beams cover portrait (and the somewhat tortuously arty video of its creation) suggest at best an electronic producer continuing a full-bore effort of self-creation as a recording pop Personality. At worst, it’s an employment of obscurity as an indicator of artistic Merit and seriousness of Intent. Dear seems too down to earth and well-adjusted for the latter, but the further he moves away from his animating electronic designs, the less reliable his hand on the helm.
Beams is the rockist counterweight to Black City’s sumptuous engineering, a deliberate injection of rock instrumentation and electric bass grooves, and some of its most conventional crossover tracks are the album’s strongest. “Earthforms” rides its infectious minor groove lengthwise through a tastefully paranoid sonic bricolage. The unstudied-cum-fantastically-adequate guitar lick and the pangs and stabs of weirdness hearken back to 90s unclassifiables Soul Coughing and sampler Mark De Gli Antoni’s masterful hand at texture. “Up & Out” seals the deal on the hints of Talking Heads’ grooves present since Backstroke, connecting on its character study of a rock hedonist, even offering an increasingly rare traditional vocal chorus. It’s unclear whether these tracks point to the road ahead, or are studio-headspace nods to Dear’s time with his live band (and his abiding love of David Byrne, Eno, and an array of 80s proto-dance-punk).
“Headcage” — title track to the prefatory EP — rides its Midwestern funk groove and enjoys itself forthrightly, Dear perhaps candidly declaring “I don’t want a new life.” What’s been missing for so much of his discography is this uncomplicated sense of fun: “Your mama won’t care if we sneak out tonight/ Throw your rocks in the air let’s go have fun tonight.” No, it’s not anecdotal at 33, but it’s getting at the universal, and doing so with an encouragingly light touch. “Overtime” is another wheelhouse track, the darkly abiding bedrock and heavily-modulated synths moving at true three-minute pop-song speed. Beams, like Asa Breed, is front-loaded with the atmospheres and vocal manipulations that are bedrock to his best work.
But Beams fails to evince the kind of songwriting growth that the vocal minority of his fans have been waiting for. Dear has been abusing the song-long loop practice of songwriting for far too long now, especially as he continues to compartmentalize his dancefloor savoir-faire among his competing, non-vocal projects. (Audion and False are still nominally active.) You can only superimpose parts for so long before any pop listener is going to beg for the ostensible variety of an A, a B, and a bridge. Dear’s “alien” or “mutant” pop sensibility has tended toward a mixture two parts expressive to three or four parts mechanical, and his crowd-pleasing impulses aren’t always supported by his densely layered atmospherics. With the door flung open to more accessible sounds and pop prospects, repetition and refrain are often mistaken for hooks (e.g., “Get the Rhyme Right” and “Ahead of Myself”). Ironically, Beams also lacks the editorial acuity of Black City; the revamp of “Leave Luck to Heaven” outtake “Shake Me” is a very weak inclusion, and “Fighting is Futile” is built upon both a stridently dissonant sample (that, in due form, is low in the mix for the entire song) and a cloying refrain. “Do the Right Thing” hints at the possibility of attenuation or decline in studio solitude: “My heart, it weighs about a ton in snakes/ I feel hollow as the grave I have to dig every day.” And are we supposed to buy that the possibility of ”unwrit(ing) this lonely feeling” must belong in a jaunty closer titled “Temptation”?
Dear seems to dally in contradiction when it might be time to bask in the light side of things, perhaps embrace the joy of today’s EDM club-banger. To wit, as far back as Asa Breed’s “Death to Feelers,” Dear worries that ”I was supposed to make grand observations/ But I’ve lost my train of thought.” Dear is ultimately much more in the 90s Beck mold of the mutant-pop auteur, exploring the (per)mutations of genre hybridization. He’s not writing pop music that aims to interrogate our collective notions of taste or attention or self, and he doesn’t need to. It just seems disingenuous to continue to throw easy plaudits by way of apology (he’s really compellingly strange here, even if it isn’t always memorable!) or in anticipation of future rewards (won’t it be great when he puts all of it together!). So: If moving out of Brooklyn and building a studio in the New York countryside are what it takes for the breakthrough LP of Matthew Dear being comfortable with himself and delivering his realized crossover potential from Ghostly International’s offices to the stage of Letterman what-have-you, we’ll be ready with told-you-so brows between sighs of relief.