Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Subterraneans: The dark visions of Matthew Dear amidst the "Black City"
There sweet sleep is not for the weary brain"
James Thomson "The City of Dreadful Night"
Downtown isn't your kind of place, but tonight it's your destination regardless. It's a friend's birthday party and they insisted on having it in a Downtown club, the kind you usually go out of your way to avoid. Your other half is staying in tonight, nursing a bad cold, making your trip Downtown all the more daunting. You arrive and quickly locate your friend. As you approach the bar to buy a drink you notice a stranger on the other side of the club. You note their good looks and stylish attire as you order your drink. Unable to resist, you give them one more look before you return to your table. Just at that moment they look up and your eyes meet. You feel a shiver of excitement. After two seconds you are the first to break contact. Christ, what was that all about? Slightly shaken, you return to your table and try to join in with the conversation, but every now and then you can't help but lift your eyes to catch a glimpse. On one of these numerous occasions it happens again. Your eyes meet. Electricity. You had planned on a couple of drinks and then an early night, but now you're thinking a couple more could be acceptable. You look up again. Wait, what's this? They're talking with someone. It looks intimate. They're standing so close to one another. What is this emotion you're feeling? Is it jealousy? OK, that's enough. Time to get out of here. As you leave you can't help but sneak in one last look. The stranger is alone again, and they've obviously been watching you as you were preparing to leave. Was that a nod? You risk a smile and quickly make your way to the exit. Your car is a block away and as you unlock the door you gaze back at the club. Someone is standing outside the club, and it seems like they're looking in your direction. It couldn't be, could it? Get in the car. Drive home. The next day the events at the club prey on your mind. By the time work is done you find yourself amused by the whole experience. Once home, you get on the computer to check out your Facebook page. A friend request. Who could this be? The name is unfamiliar. You look at the picture and your heart almost leaps out of your chest. It's them. How can this be? How did they? What? This one's easy. Decline the friendship request. But how can it hurt? It's only Facebook. Suddenly you've accepted the request. You're nervous. Within a minute a message has appeared in your inbox. It's from them. What is happening here? Yesterday you were happy. Why do this? But it's too late. You click on the message with a racing heart. One night Downtown and suddenly you're a resident of Black City.
2010 saw the release of the Matthew Dear album "Black City". Never meant as a concept album, think of it more as a sonic approximation of the archetypal modern city. Unlike vast amounts of American art, "Black City" is not interested in the hidden ugliness of suburban life, but in the epicentre of modern existence: the Big City. For centuries now people have been drawn to big cities with the promise of better jobs, more opportunities and more excitement. Western cities, in particular Rome, Paris, London and New York, have been hailed equally as the engines of civilisation and modern day Gomorrah's, leading mankind into sin and degradation. Matthew Dear's "Black City" is one that never sleeps. It is alive with clandestine communication. The residents are barely perceptible as fully formed entities, seeming instead to slip through the streets driven by unrecognisable impulses. Track one, "Honey", begins lyrically with the statement "I want, my fate, in my hands", but for Black City residents this can never be. When a person is spurred on by motivations that emanate from within but nevertheless are not of their choosing they are operating on instructions from a part of themselves that they can neither understand nor control. Modern living is often blamed for pulling people from the path of righteousness. Advertising flashes with flesh, websites seduce with promises of easy sex, but to focus on such aspects of modernity is to labour over the obvious. A glimpse of skin sends pulses racing, but why? The answer is that human beings are hard-wired for sex and curiosity. It is the furnace that fires our inner-being but left unattended will consume us. For centuries, and to many people still, it took the thought of an all-knowing supernatural being with the power to torture us for all eternity to curb these instincts. Think about that. How strong must our urges be if it takes such a being to make us think twice? In place of God we live in hope now that the bonds of family and shared commitment will provide the necessary civilising influence over our latent desires. Free from the thought of an ever-watchful deity, though, we can now harbour secrets knowing that they will remain so. In Black City there are many dark corners. Who can say what goes on in such places?
Matthew Dear is smart enough to know that shoving a concept down people's throats is a bad idea. What works better are suggestions, hints and insinuations. This is far more befitting an exploration of Black City, whose currency is stolen glances and imagined rendezvous. On the album, the music leans toward hypnotic mood pieces that seduce with repeated listens. Dear comes off as part observer, part mesmerising band-leader and part concierge of the city itself. It seems like he knows its secrets, but he nevertheless welcomes all newcomers with a knowing smile. "Take a bow, take a chance" he intones on second track "I Can't Feel", hinting that making an exhilarating leap into this world will surely bring rewards, but then on the next track, the epic "Little People (Black City)", he's lamenting that his "frozen wasted heart, has died" and "I'm your other man". The words come off as almost incomprehensible fragments of confusion, justification, melancholy and regret, and that's where we get to the heart of "Black City". Nobody is happy. Everybody is chasing one more high, and individuality fades as people become stand-ins for something missing in someone else's life. "You Put A Smell On Me" is a sirens call to temptation, as the narrator implores some unknown acquaintance to drive, dance and return home with him. Once home she is cajoled into wearing a "little red night-gown". The narrator is clearly not interested in the girl as a person, but more for her ability to fulfill a particular fantasy or play out some unresolved trauma involving somebody long gone. People act, react and commit to courses of action for reasons unknown, to obtain unknown ends, and remain unsatisfied regardless of the results. There is always opportunity for contact as the sleepless city buzzes with texts, e-mails and status updates that serve more as emergency flares than genuine attempts at communication. Black City residents are night people, looking at each other, waiting for something to happen. For some, sex is the ultimate reward. For others, sex is out of the question. If they can turn heads, that is enough. Conversations and body language become desperate games of bait and switch, as each tries to get what they want, be it attention or a phone number or something more carnal.
Musically, "Black City" draws from two main sources that traditionally don't always flow together. Techno, and alternative rock. Able to create a spellbinding beat with apparent ease, Dear then fills in the atmospheric blanks with sources that range from Roxy, Bowie, Eno, Talking Heads and Depeche Mode. Imagine a seedy, almost industrial form of alternative dance that refuses to resort to the adolescent angst of NIN, or the goth/metal bile of Ministry. Guitars are present on "Black City", but they never crunch, and instead are used as atmosphere enhancers a la "Violator". Unlike Depeche Mode, though, whose lyrical perversities mirror Martin Gore's own tastes, we are never sure where Matthew Dear stands in regards to the goings-on of "Black City". This approach also works well as it allows Dear to slip in and out of different characters without giving judgments of their actions, while also not giving the characters a platform to judge society. They are simply doing what they are doing because that is what they do. Dear uses his voice as both an atmosphere creator and percussion instrument, effortlessly using his skills as a producer to weave an alluring portrait of the buzzing hive at the heart of our industrial centre's. Seemingly able to appropriate the best elements of dark alternative-pop without resorting to cliche, yet never sounding like a mimic, his talents appear almost endless. Live, too, he holds the crowd effortlessly in his hand, manipulating his voice and the music to give the impression of a cool jazz band suddenly fixated with Richie Hawtin, led by a dapper Bryan Ferry-esque crooner raised in Twin Peaks instead of County Durham. Everything falls together into an artistic whole, with Dear picking up the baton of synth-pop alive with sinister uneasiness that bloomed around the time of Bowie circa "Scary Monsters" and "Tin Drum" era Japan, minus the modern desire to revel in retro-isms and bad taste. "Black City" is thoroughly of its time, with Dears' background in the techno scene ensuring that he doesn't play into the worst aspects of indie posturing, and its disconsolate tone feels painfully adult rather than the meanderings of an overgrown teenager.
For all its darkness, though, "Black City" is no "Unknown Pleasures", even if the albums are somewhat stylistically related. The music may skirt the abyss, but it ultimately refuses to dive in. This is never more true than on the closing track "Gem". Bathed in angelic synths and ethereal backing vocals, the narrator of this song for once drops their guard and appears poignantly vulnerable, declaring;
"All of my sad songs can't make you change,
They'll just keep pushing you further away,
One of your great regrets will be staying in place,
I can't hold you back from your dreams,
When you figure out what's real, I'll be standing here,
A little bit older but forgiving as the night into day."
Its artless lyrical tone feels like a relief after our trip through the modern world's darkest alleyways. One can even imagine a break in the clouds or, greater still, the sun coming up over Black City. When the sun rises, however, the repercussions of the previous night must be dealt with. It's tempting to imagine the narrator of "Gem" to be the real Matthew Dear, given its mention of songs, but I see it more as a "morning-after" moment of clarity for a Black City resident, and the realisation that a parting is inevitable. Indeed it seems as if the parting has already occurred, with the narrator having stated, "Who can I talk with today? Why am I still the same? No reward for calling out your name". Despite this, there remains the hope of reconciliation. All they need to do now is avoid the allurements of Black City. Easier said than done. No matter what, it is always there, it is always alive, and it is always ready to welcome you in. You know the way, and once there perhaps you can find relief in the arms of a stranger, one who can help you forget the one who got away. Except you'll never truly replace them. You know that. Still, what harm can it really do? You're in control and you can leave Black City any time you like. Good luck. Just don't say that Matthew Dear didn't warn you.