Matthew Dear never takes the most direct approach to pop, but he nevertheless always manages to arrive there. With a long list of pseudonyms in his catalog, Dear has tackled his share of dance microgenres, and a whole history of electronic music informs his approach, which ultimately funneled into his 2007 album Asa Breed. Yet two years ago, on Black City, Dear took a darker yet equally enjoyable tack, trading his brighter electro-pop for more heavily Bowie and Joy Division-influenced pop that still sparked from more sinister places. Pop, for Dear, is not strict and immutable, but a fluid and flexible thing, able to be formed and molded into strange and peculiar shapes, while remaining to function as an accessible, even danceable form of art.
With Beams, Dear offers yet another new permutation though ever-evolving sonic sculptures, this time his creations curving back toward late ’70s underground disco and Talking Heads-style new wave funk. Though Dear has never been one for pure pastiche — for as much as David Byrne might be his muse on a song like the rubbery art-funk of “Up & Out,” Dear’s deep baritone and penchant for neatly tailored, clean lines ultimately makes it a creation for which only he could be responsible. And yet, within his identifiable aesthetic, the boundaries extend well beyond any easy expectations.
The sometimes dark textures and lascivious moods of Beams make it something of a logical extension of Black City without actually sounding that much like it. The heavy throb of “Overtime,” for instance, is an even more physical analog to the avant-raunch of that album’s “You Put A Smell On Me.” And what “Her Fantasy” lacks in terms of duration against the previous album’s epic centerpiece “Little People (Black City),” it more than makes up for in dense, blissful sonic structures. And those blissful sonic structures are ultimately what this album is about, sometimes ambiguously percussive (“Fighting Is Futile”), and sometimes soulful, almost gospel in the way they appropriate major chords and refrains primed for audience response (“Ahead of Myself”).
More than ever, Dear seems to be increasingly focusing on songwriting over rhythm or texture, though those elements certainly comprise pretty substantial pieces of the pie, overall. A song like “Shake Me” still seems to incorporate all of the elements in a typical Dear track — gurgling beats, a variety of subtle layers of synth — yet what stands out most is the melancholy piano loop beneath Dear’s alternately sad and humorous couplets (“Did I say I was capable of freezing time?/ Well… I lied“). Similarly, “Earthforms” builds up a full head of steam on some motorik krautrock grooves, but the increased use of live instruments, bass in particular, lends it a kind of analog warmth that goes down easy. And the incredible build of “Her Fantasy” bears repeating; it’s easily one of the strongest songs of Dear’s career.
Matthew Dear has thus far appeared pretty well averse to repeating himself, but what’s most interesting about Beams is not so much its radical changes but its organic outgrowth from existing ideas. That Dear has largely shed his penchant for frequent transformation signals his maturity as an artist, and his increasing focus on developing even stronger pop songs reflects that. He could very well re-route his current trajectory in a few years’ time, but Beams is all the reason we need to trust he knows where he’s going.
Stream: Matthew Dear – “Earthforms”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.