By Russell Warfield
Matthew Dear wore his mood on his sleeve with the cover art and title of his last LP Black City – a dark, industrial, almost soulless (I mean none of this as a criticism) sheen of grinding rhythms and Dear’s idiosyncratic, dehumanised vocal. (I’ll leave you to imagine the colour scheme of the album sleeve). With Dear’s newest LP – his sixth – the same can almost be said: the title Beams suggesting piercing rays of light, while the artwork introduces a spattering of mixed colour in an impressionistic likeness of the man himself.
And so the marriage between presentation and content is made afresh within the first few seconds of stunning opener ‘Her Fantasy’, sporting a texture which positively breathes with life – chirping, whistling, and naturalistic percussion sounds providing a framework to its refreshingly organic approach to build and release. “It’s just one in a million hearts that feel the way I do”, he begins. Beams then, finds Dear making music with a truly natural pulse, sounding at his most human and alive – and, perhaps not so coincidentally, his most engrossing and accessible.
The highs on Beams surpass the highs of Black City – itself a fine record – owing if nothing else to the euphoria of hearing Dear sound so endearingly vulnerable and thrillingly loved up; not as the seemingly emotionless, dystopian dance-hybrid presented on his last record. With album highlight ‘Fighting Is Futile’, it’s joyously surprising to find Dear (during a song which was already riding a hedonistically feel-good high, with hooks a mile wide) suddenly give way to a texture backed by a carefree, plonking glockenspiel imitation, with the uncommonly sweet lyric “I don’t think about anything but you. I can’t be myself, because I’m stuck on you”. And he sounds so happy about it! And then – as if wanting to translate the feeling to his listener perfectly – he brings back that beat, that texture, that hook – in a rush of ecstasy – arms aloft, shimmering lights, shimmying hips. A divine climax; well-deserved and beautifully executed.
While Black City made for a seamless cohesion between Dear’s disembodied, robotic vocal and the album’s overall mood, Beams plays a different – but equally lucrative – game in toying with the juxtaposition between Dear’s trademark vocal, and the album’s frothier lyrical mood and more naturalistic, vibrant textures. ‘Headcage’ offers up a fabulous high point in one of its later sections, where Dear – in his eerie, hyper-low drawl – intones “your momma won’t care if you sneak out tonight / throw your hands in the air, let’s go have fun tonight”. With the distance between Dear’s apparently joyless vocal, and the accelerating vibrancy of its backing textures (not to mention the irresistibility of the hook itself) the effect is an alluring mixture of innocent teen-pop sensibility and absolutely filth.
It’s a great tone to hit, and one which Dear manages to hit on plenty of occasions over these eleven tracks, and always with a muscular hook and slick bass run to boot. Indeed, it’s when Dear veers too closely to the danker territories of his preceding LP is when he’s at his least appealing – ‘Shake Me’ and ‘Ahead Of Myself’ sounding not just incongruously shadowy among the rest of the life affirming vibrant material, but flatly momentum breaking. But thankfully re-treads of Black City are wholly consigned to these two tracks, leaving us with a huge helping of Dear at his most alive, his most in love, and his most eager to make his listener feel exactly the same way.