Matthew Dear – Black City (Ghostly International, 2010)


Songs as much as anything are simply poems set to music; lyrics are like mini-novels, expressive thoughts articulated in words, carried by the vehicle of the sound. It’s easy to overlook the craft of songwriting, especially in the case of Dear whose productions rely on principally Electronic Dance styles to bear his writing. Infectiously groovy and rhythmic, his beat laden material can easily mask the sensitivities it carries, which is a crushing shame when you consider the deep emotive core of bustling Black City.

A common theme in his music is a focus on relationships, often romantic (sexual), and all the complexities and tumults they bear. Whilst records like Asa Breed focus more on “the chase”, Black City finds itself embroiled in loss and the coping mechanisms Dear turns to in the depravities of the ambiguous, nameless conurbation in order to fill the void she has left behind.

One needs to turn no further than the sandwiching pieces of sumptuous opener “Honey” and its antithetical closer “Gem”. The former moves in easygoing guitar and percussion, syrupy luxuriousness but not saccharine as it hangs echoic and empty, talking to air. Dear talks of protection and shelter, an opportunity to give them another chance with his masculine shielding aura. But by the end the melancholia takes heart as the realisation sets in: there is no return, this is all on her terms and he won’t “hold you back from your dreams”, though he’ll still be there, forgiving, when she comes back, once she figures out what she’s lost. Piano dribbles out set to distant light and laughter, an echo of memory, resigned to a lonely fate.

This drift isn’t without fights, and we’re gifted some spirited and wanton pieces in the battle. Penultimate “More Surgery” sets itself to a metronomic heartbeat tone, darkling bleeps and oozing drones slinking desirously beneath the surface as it unwinds an air of low self-esteem and unworthiness.

I’m in love with ghosts, when I feel alone

These tired old eyes can masquerade

It’s a gross mistake, I’m a toothless man

He dreams of the pretty, possible passers by and the airbrushed nobodies online but sees the shallowness of such thought, the sham of this faux-Casanova mentality and the lie he tells himself to mask the emptiness. What he wouldn’t give to excise these thoughts to devote them to his lost love, slipping in his pettiness. That’s why he swings out in the jovial and animalic “Monkey”.

Fun, shuffling textures and quixotic lyrics blame his actions on his primitive, primal ancestry, his desires and actions basal and simplistic. And yet despite his crudeness there’s feeling and care, a reaching need for her to direct his sensitivity into action to save them. “Tell me what you want me to be, I can be it/ I can be your lover if the loving shoe fits”.

That animalic attitude plays up elsewhere though, most notably in the downright sexy “You Put A Smell On Me”. There’s something elemental and predatory about it, moving on driven and pacy synth arpeggiations that push and insist and leave little space for thought outside of selfish pleasure. It drips in suggestive, euphemistic clarity, lost in pheromone driven horniness.

We can go all night if you wanna go far

You decide, if you want to come

He woos these empty city creatures in following “Shortwave” as well, all Bonnie and Clyde like as he unwinds conversation, plotting nonchalant crimes with her by his side. He’s in it for the thrill, for the danger, for the chase: “I want engine oil [to] come out” he croons in the fiery synth breakdown at its conclusion. We slip into near textural overload here as the track explodes out, this almost orgasmic burst of pleasure and energy engineered to briefly fill the void that surrounds it.

As much as Black City has these raucous, phallic-driven pieces, this powerful and overriding masculinity it nurtures a softer heart, one that uses this guise of primal desires and actions to mask its fragile conflicts. Romancing shouldn’t be a sign of weakness, separation should feel damaging and we should be permitted to mourn it.  We aren’t solely these randy beasts, and we musn’t be afraid to talk and express ourselves before things slip out of control; whilst Dear allows us to play this dream of confident seducers for a small time, he also cleverly teaches us a bit of almost fatherly advice: let women choose their own fate; face the problems and accept the feelings head-on; and don’t be an asshole.

Black City is being reissued on smokey vinyl October 2018