Producer/band-leader extraordinaire Matthew Dear long ago distanced himself from the title of "techno wunderkind," and on Beams, his latest for Ghostly International, he moves even further from his roots, embracing the post-punk influences of his youth on his most pop-tinged record to date.
At first listen, it seems like Beams is a million miles away from Dear's 2010 gothic masterpiece, Black City, as the new LP ditches grimy, back-alley beats for something warmer and brighter; it feels optimistic, and downright playful. Exhilarating opener and lead single "Her Fantasy" sets the tone right from the start, a tropical summer jam that's as close to synth-pop perfection as he'll ever get. "Earthforms," easily one of the best tracks on the album, keeps the momentum going with an infectious bassline recalling early Joy Division. Talking Heads-like grooves run through "Up & Out," the song perhaps being something of a tribute to Dear's idol, David Byrne.
Outward sunniness aside, a closer look at Beams reveals a different story, and a more mature songwriter. From the bruised-up portrait on the cover to the fatalistic lyrics, Dear is still lurking in dark corners—he seems to be stuck in an incredibly uncomfortable place in his own mind. Deeply rooted anxiety seeps through "Her Fantasy" ("Am I one heartbeat away from receiving a damaging shock to my life?"), "Overtime" ("And the relative passage/You have to fade to fade up") and "Do the Right Thing" ("My heart, it weighs about a ton in flames/Pouring down from the sun to the ground in mistakes"). Dear delivers these harsh realities with his near-robotic baritone, and it's the tension derived from the unsettling mix of seductive beats, introspective lyrics, and Dear's deadpan delivery that makes Beams such a compelling listen.
Beams is a strong addition to Dear's catalog, but it's not all that inventive given his history, and it does have its weak points. "Fighting Is Futile" is a total mess—the driving mantra of "Take a trip on something else" is maddening, and the bizarre inclusion of clashing steel drums is puzzling at best. He seems downright bored with "Do The Right Thing," a heavy-handed song about growing up and accepting responsibility for your mistakes. That said, minor complaints aside, Beams is a solid record, and a pretty good Dear album is nothing to be upset about.