With 2010’s Black City serving as a perfecting of Matthew Dear’s Berlin-era-Bowie-meets-Talking-Heads pop star persona, Beams isn’t volte-face we’ve come to expect from the former techno DJ’s career. The record exists in the same universe of layered and compacted productions, subterranean basslines and seedy synth. He and his voice are still stinkingly corporeal on the record. That multi-tracked guttural purr still strongly suggests lugubrious hotel scenes, sad-eyed women with streaked mascara and sloppily divided lines of coke on black marble work surfaces. But this time there’s the briefest glimmer of light bleeding around the edges.
‘Her Fantasy’ opens the album with carnival whistles, hand claps and Dear pondering love: “Do I feel love like all of the others, or is this feeling only mine?” Amidst the fluttering synth and disembodied grunts and sighs on ‘Headcage’ he’s imploring a Cinderella to join him on a night out with a sense of devilish fun – “your mama won’t care” – that’s more white picket fence than white lace. On ‘Fighting Is Futile’ he’s talking about the afterlife in hopeful tones.
Of course Beams is only cheerful in light of Dear’s usual gloomy-minded lust. The aforementioned ‘Fighting Is Futile’ closes on desolate, pealing guitar notes. ‘Shake Me Dear’ has Dear announcing “I laughed when they hit you with their sticks” while circling, minor-key piano suggests the faintest hint of a grin at the recollection before he adds, “you cried”. On ‘Earthforms’ he reassures that “it’s all right to be someone else sometimes” over a post-punk, spy-movie bassline as if preparing us for some Jekyll and Hyde transformation. ‘Get The Rhyme Right’ wriggles and squeals like it’s on some medieval rack (or, more appropriately, a BDSM torture device) over a conch-like, doomsday drone. The list of dark stuff on Beams is longer than the bright stuff, but in spite of itself sometimes it’s just possible to parse a note of optimism or a confession of love underneath all the gloomy layers.
Like that Dorian Gray album art, Beams resists immediate understanding or gratification. You get the sense Dear’s juggling a lot of oppositions at this stage in his career – man vs. machine, synthetic vs. organic, light vs. shade, ego vs. id – and in trying to find out where he wants to be Beams suffers a little. The record isn’t defined by the considerable stylistic drift that made Asa Breed and Black City such interesting propositions: its peaks and troughs are less pronounced. But while there’s nothing radically different here that’ll grab headlines, this is still a transitional record. At 33 Dear is leaving Gotham and heading to the country. Beams is the sound of an artist slowly edging out of the darkness and into the light.
Listen to Beams