Matthew Dear’s latest record, Black City, is less a narrative or musical exploration of an imaginary, lasciviously grotty metropolis, than a series of evocations, mechanical and pulsating, of the darkly seductive/destructive sense of possibility that cities seem to keep folded away in their recesses. You can find what you are looking for, whatever that may be, but you are going to pay for it one way or another, and you are going to have to face up to the dehumanizing loneliness that one only feels when surrounded by millions of people, almost all of whom live comfortably unconscious of your existence. Of course, those whose paths do cross yours may dig their nails in deep enough to leave the kind of marks that reappear unto death. But that’s what you were after anyway, wasn’t it?
Black City is a danceable dystopia, a lusty clutch of emotions run through filters, processors, reversed, recoded, modulated…twisted until they don’t resemble reflections of the everyday as much as impossible experiences of having things that run through the back alleys of your mind projected for you to listen to with a mixture of sharp attraction and slight befuddlement. And Matthew Dear’s grizzled and mechanized vocals, wonderfully at home in their limitation, describe what you are seeing but do not recognize. Opener “Honey” is as thick as its namesake, a slow-motion passage into the dark textures of the record, a bassy, growling piece of skulking electronic pop that lays the warmth of Dear’s vocals in a cold landscape of black, white and grays. Its languid smears of sound slowly cover the windows, leaving on the faintest trace of light behind themselves.
“Lonely black city,” “little red night gown, night gown.” The first appears repeatedly in the shape-shifting, locomotive “Little People (Black City),” seemingly tossed off, a statement of fact, a thought of something that lies beyond the walls of an apartment, the background for comings and goings, events both debasing and viscerally satisfying. The second, the little red night gown, comes along in “You Put a Smell on Me,” a menacing, industrial beast built for some pretty heavy nightclub that I have never seen, and the phrase is a fetchingly lewd centerpiece, something to hold on to in the relentless churning and tearing loops. It is related to the lean, techno pollinated “Don and Sherri” from Dear’s last record, 2007’s Asa Breed, but “D&S” had a sense of humor to it, a knowingness about the sometimes ridiculous turns of human interaction, whereas “You Put a Smell” seems to wallow in malevolence, drawing sex and love down into its bleakness and desire.
Throughout Black City, Dear makes it clear that he has a special talent for coming up with languorous but addictive vocal melodies and then doubling and remaking them, programmed into a synthesizer or melded out of eerie debris. It often gives the songs a strong sense of layers, of a slowly revealed depth. Like the best of the minimal wave or darkwave gear that has been seeing reissue after reissue, Dear’s songs are sharp and often cold, but he is also able to extend, to spill their inky darkness outward into encompassing atmospheres. There is an agility and precision to this music that makes most of the synthesizer addled pop coming out of every crevice of the Internet seem unappealingly amateurish, unsure of how to get what it wants from the machines it lives from. Thankfully, here, we are taken through a black city of emotion rather than given another acid-free rainbow popsicle to suck on.
Chris & Cosey – Songs of Love and Lust
Joy Division – Closer
Suicide – Suicide
MP3: “Soil to Seed”