Over the last decade, Matthew Dear has commanded an international respect for his production prowess, dense, multifarious DJ sets, and, more recently, his crossover forays into pop music. Much like an academic, though, Dear’s influence at the highest levels of dance music belies his salience with the average, Justice-listening Joe, as his name often rests on the periphery despite how deep his impact can be felt. Adding to this mystique are his multiple aliases: Audion creates edgier, tech-focused electronica; Jabberjaw and False are alternating takes on a sort-of minimal house; and his work as Matthew Dear combines the outliers of all three into more song-based, funky electro. On Black City, the prolific producer successfully tackles the dark corners of urban living with a comprehensive aesthetic push, yielding one of the year’s most sonically-interesting records to-date.
While some might bristle at the notion of a dance producer making a record that’s somewhat intellectual – he’s here to make us lose our minds, right? — one listen to “Little People (Black City)”, “Soil to Seed”, or “You Put a Smell on Me” should convince the detractors that a heady pursuit can still be fun. Indeed, for all the verbiage on Dear’s website about the anxiety of the metropolis, Black City feels more supportive of immersive urban existence than critical, often favoring a mood of seduction over paranoia. The deceptive lightness of Dear’s lyrics perpetuate this feeling, though, and a more intensive look underneath his sophisticated grooves will uncover a serious attempt to capture the perplexities of the modern city-dweller. In a sense, then, Black City is Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis put to beats, an experience that’s more impressionistic than visceral (due almost entirely to the nature of the medium), though no less intriguing.
Some of the most interesting work on Black City is the least danceable, positioning Dear amongst Apparat, Telefon Tel Aviv, and Ellen Allien as an artist who’s confident enough to employ texture as a driving force in lieu of redundant 4/4 rhythms. His detailed focus is impeccable, aligning a wide-variety of organic and electronic sounds in a dark sound world that remarkably underpins the deep drawl of his vocals. Perhaps even more interesting than the conceptual content itself, Dear’s use of spliced vocal samples becomes one of the most endearing ingredients of the record as it plays on, creating a shadowy, haunting aura that’s especially effective when heard through headphones. Cuts like “Shortwave” and “More Surgery”, far from being club bangers, are intelligent tracks that recall Thom Yorke’s The Eraser or Trent Reznor’s subdued electronic soundscapes, enhancing Dear’s worth as a producer while making Black City a richly cohesive journey into the fictional underworld.
Though at-times reverential of Bowie and Prince, Black City ultimately remains a record for electronic enthusiasts. This isn’t meant as a slight, however, as this collection once again reasserts Dear’s prominence in a scene that’s oversaturated with mediocre production and base lyrical content, perhaps a subtle reminder to his peers to prioritize substance over style no matter how harrowing the effort might be.