After years of working under aliases, New York-based producer/crooner Matthew Dear has been using his Christian name steadily since 2009. Unlike the harder-edged electronica of Audion or the minimalist house of Jabberjaw and False, the Dear persona has evolved beyond mere dance music, mixing pop and rock archetypes with a steady avant-garde bent, resulting in a sound that’s as unpredictable as it is familiar. On Beams, his fifth album under his birth name, Dear undertakes the most impressive and important growth spurt of all: mixing high art with deeply personal revelations, finding a way to express a more unified self after years of playing career hopscotch. Though Dear himself has admitted to being “four to five different people at any given time,” he doesn’t seem to suffer from such split personalities on Beams; instead, the album’s 11 tracks hew to a unified persona, even if that person is deeply conflicted.
The protagonist on album standout, “Ahead of Myself”, steeps himself in that contradiction, willing to sacrifice everything and proudly wear his lover’s blood on his teeth even as he hesitates, (the deliciously delivered “But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself”). Ultimately, this pessimistic uncertainty wins the narrator’s battle with himself, internalized so effectively that the monologue feels organic, not staged for theatrical effect. Dear seems to realize this inward struggle’s destructive potential, however, addressing it on “Fighting Is Futile”.
Within this basic cut, Dear tells himself — once more via profound mantra — to “take a trip on something else,” to move on to new exploits and leave the painful struggle behind. More than just a simple solution to his own emotional shortcomings, the song balances his ceaseless thoughts, funneling away the pent-up energy created by those diametrically opposed personalities. With these “improvements” comes new confidence, with which Dear explores sounds alluding to his back catalog’s inherent intricacies, while always working to simplify the overall output.
“Earthforms” builds around a frolicking bass line that subtly blends judicious fragments of garage, punk, and surf-rock. Even though this is Dear’s most obvious “rock” song to date, there are elements — the repetitive groove, the chimes, and Dear’s own Eno-meets-Gabriel croon — that could easily categorize it as electronica. Despite these varied influences, “Earthforms” impacts because of its limited nature, which feels refreshing in the face of some of his grander, overwhelming creations (read: 2010’s Black City).
That said, Dear can’t seem to help himself on “Overtime”. Undertones of The Stranglers inspire Dear’s thickest pop to date, a proto-dubstep track packed with playful wubs and vocals from the cheesiest ’80s joke song. But its content — exploring daily life in a dystopia — intrigues more than Black City: It pushes to absurdity, making Dear’s personal loss in the face of technological progress a less bitter pill to swallow. Beyond the personal cohesion and the grand musical constructs, the most exciting and definitive examples of Dear’s development are the tracks where he strips away all the flash and pretense for the rawest emotion of his career thus far.
Dear’s vulnerabilities on “Do The Right Thing” go beyond the typical “Ow, my heart hurts from a bad breakup.” Instead, he turns into an angst-ridden teenager, busting out 5-Star notebook poetry like, “My heart, it weighs about a ton in flames/ Pouring down from the sun to the ground in mistakes.” Those lines, accompanied by the earnest and childlike synths, reveal the song’s true meaning: Life sucks, but you trudge onward, because surprise! It’s the right thing to do. It’s no-frills honesty with visceral impact that somehow still feels complex and intricate.
To strip off the last remnants of emotional armor, Dear closes with “Temptation”. On the surface, it pseudo-fuses everything truly worthwhile about the album, from the tribal rhythms to Dear’s odd, proud croon that still self-consciously fades into the fuzz. Yet those understated, easy-to-miss lines say the most, the loudest, possibly on the whole LP: “When all my insides fall to pieces/ They can lead back to gentle feelings.”
That’s what Beams is truly all about: that chance for Dear to break himself down, to boil everything he is emotionally, musically, and creatively to its most essential. With that achieved, regardless of the name its created under, you’ve got yourself a truly unified, coherent record.
Essential Tracks: “Earthforms”, “Ahead of Myself”, and “Overtime”