Between the animalistic funk of 2003 single “Dog Days”, a dance track that cheerfully nuzzled its way into a SXSW/CMJ mindset, and 2004’s Backstroke LP, there was a lot of talk of Matthew Dear’s shapeshifting abilities. He’d already proven, both under his own name (recording for Ghostly and its Spectral sublabel) and as False (for Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 and Minus labels) and Jabberjaw (for Perlon), that he could stretch and twist his Slinky-like tracks to traverse any hairpin of techno’s staircase. Now, word was, Dear was turning towards even greater accessibility with a record that would bring a new sense of songform to his gritty, agreeable beat structures.
But while six of Backstroke’s eight tracks featured vocals (as did “Dog Days”) and fell into the occasional verse/chorus structure, the record failed to deliver Dear a wider audience. His voice, even with its odd pitch, put its shoulder to the wheel in the service of pop, but the tires were worn from burning rubber behind a disco stoplight; its tracks felt like retreads, cracked, wobbly, a little thin. I still enjoy the record, but compared to the staggeringly confident tracks Dear released as Audion in just the last year, “Mouth to Mouth”, “I Gave You Away”, remixes for Claude VonStroke, Hot Chip, and Black Strobe, anthems all, it’s difficult to hear Backstroke as the work of the same individual.
With his new album, Asa Breed, Dear finally makes good on his long-awaited metamorphosis. It’s not that the record is a straightforward pop romp: It’s still anchored in Dear’s lumbering beats, its rhythms cobbled together from misfiring drum machines and colored with barely-in-tune keyboards and yellowing room tone. Still, Dear pulls together his widest array of elements yet, not just in terms of instrumentation—electric and acoustic guitars, live drums, and haphazard percussion all play strong roles—but also style: Hints of new wave, indie rock, Afropop, and even country enliven Asa Breed. Dear’s mercurial approach to genre, however, feels less like dabbling than a kind of shambling dandyism, trying on mismatched styles with a sidelong wink in the mirror.
The most immediate change is that Dear’s voice now sits front-and-center in every track. Actually, make that front-and-center and side-to-side: Virtually every song features two- or three-part, multitracked vocals, encompassing his natural baritone, a more idiosyncratic midrange, and finally a warbly falsetto, generally digitally smeared as a sort of pitch-correction. It’s not the greatest voice in the world, but he uses it well, sliding into the notes, lingering on his vowels, and greasing the mechanistic clutter of his backing tracks. It’s a suggestive and evocative voice, though exactly what’s being suggested is often left ambiguous. On the downcast “Deserter” it’s impossible to miss the influence of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis; on the ruminative “Fleece on Brain”, his backing Ooh-oohs sound like a scrap of 1960s pop that’s wafted in on some errant, psychedelic gust. Sometimes, the vocals themselves mutate into something approaching pure musicality, more sensibility than sense: On “Will Gravity Win Tonight?” it might take you dozens of listens to realize that the background babble is really the mantra-like repetition, “More work to be done.”
Asa Breed is a moody record, thanks in no small part to its affirmational lyrics and plaintive guitars. Some critics have found fault with Dear’s way with words, and he does occasionally misstep, but more often than not, his slightly cryptic character sketches work well, allowing ambiguous narratives to sprout from the cracked pavement of his productions. The lyrics invite all manner of questions. Who are “Don and Sherri”? If love is “such a tricky thing/ Can include diamond rings,” is that a good or a bad thing? (Dear is married.) And in a record so filled with self-doubt, how much is pure literary invention, and how much points to a crack in the artist’s own psyche? It’s so rare to get any sense of dance artists’ personae that Dear’s ambiguous, occasionally confessional lyrics take on extra weight. Part of the pleasure of Asa Breed is its introduction of a character we’ve never met before; Dear’s reluctance to reveal only sends you back into the music looking for answers. (Some of those answers will surprise you: the closing country dirge “Vine to Vine”, featuring a Johnny Cash-like spoken word drawl, is about a paternal ancestor of Dear’s that was allegedly gunned down by Texas Rangers over a century ago.)
The other thing that keeps me returning to Asa Breed again and again, beyond its individual songs’ inventive, engrossing composition and production, is the pacing of the album. It’s moody, yes—even a jaunty track like “Fleece on Brain” feels haunted and fraught with anxiety—but the record’s sequence pinballs from brassy electric bumpers to pensive pits and suspenseful pauses. The first four songs seem to circle a common mood as if poking and prodding from every angle, shining a Maglite in the recesses of a deep funk. (The way he wields phrases suggests the minimalist he’s always been, twisting and spinning a few sinewy strands into a rope as tough as woven steel; you can hear Audion’s druggy abandon throughout, in slow, grinding synthesizers and tones that change color as gradually as a darkening, stormbound sky.) With “Elementary Lover”, Dear abruptly changes course, channeling the Tom Tom Club. “Don and Sherri” plunges back into the murk of a humid dance floor. “Will Gravity Win Tonight?” is bitter black tea as a sort of palate cleanser; “Pom Pom” is a bizarre, Beach Boys-influenced miniature (at 2:39, it’s the shortest song on the album, by two seconds); “Death to Feelers” is a kindergarten tale of unrequited love for toy piano and tambourine. And the last four songs usher us out in a kind of extended dream sequence of organs, acoustic guitars, country yelps, the Sea and Cake lounge jazz, and the totally unexpected American Gothic of “Vine to Vine”.
Maybe it’s because Dear has worked on the album, off and on, for the past three years that its stylistic drift is so wide; what’s remarkable is how well all the pieces sit together, and how convincingly they lay out a series of stepping stones. Ultimately, the path leads back inside the album itself, breeding as many questions as certainties. One thing remains clear, though: As producer, songwriter and persona, Dear has come into his own with Asa Breed, a bootstrapping album that not only reveals the miles walked, but an ambitious road map ahead.