By definition, “beams” are an offshoot of a light source. They illuminate, but not as wholly as a sun or lamp or fireball — they highlight selectively and leave other parts of the scenery in the darkness. In their myriad meanings and connotations, they make for the perfect namesake for Matthew Dear’s fifth studio album.
“Everything’s a bit brighter,” Dear says of the disc when comparing it to his 2010 release, Black City, a greatly lauded work that tells the tale of a fictional city inspired by New York and all the darkness that it holds. “Beams is the tail end of that kind of madness — that force of nonstop living,” he says. “So that’s the kind of beams that are shooting out the back end of this kind of insane, intense world that Black City was for me.”
Although Dear deems the album “brighter,” don’t expect a bubbly pop effort. Remember, these “beams” are shooting out of a dark world and are thus tainted by its influence. There are danceable jams like “Fighting Is Futile” — which seems hopeful and includes the lyric “I’m not sick anymore” — but, well, it’s called “Fighting Is Futile” (a sentiment that also crops up in single “Her Fantasy”), so how bright is that really? Tonally Beams is definitely brighter than Dark City — especially when comparing this collection of songs to the anxiety-ridden thumper “You Put a Smell on Me” — but lyrically, it’s another story. Disturbing images like “I laughed when they hit you with their sticks” flit in and out of bright spots (“Shake Me”), and as you follow Dear down one imagined storyline, you find yourself lost somewhere in his mind. As he sings on “Do the Right Thing,” “I’m between what you see/ Close your eyes to look at me.” Exactly. What?
“I don’t try to overcomplicate things but just try to give a new perspective on the way thatI can make life into a riddle.”
And that’s what’s so effective about Dear’s songwriting — unlike modern musicians in his genre who hide their lyrics in a sea of fuzz or decry them altogether, Dear spends time with words. He allows them to stand at the forefront of his music but still manages to obfuscate the meaning as much as a band like Liars, who decline to even print their lyrics. All that’s left is the feeling of the music, personal to Dear and subjective all at once.
“I’m into wordplay, but I’m not into complexity,” Dear says. “Some of my favorite writers or songwriters do it so simply, and it’s so intense. Like Townes Van Zandt, for example, has a song where he says — I’m totally going to mangle it right now, but something like ’time was like water, but I was sea, I wouldn’t have noticed it passing.’ Little things like that, where you’re using the most common words — you’re not digging into a thesaurus, you’re not getting all complex with tongue-twisting sentences, but it’s so cut-to-the-bone, so immediate.”
A prime example of this cut-to-the-bone simplicity comes at the opening of “Do The Right Thing”: swathed in almost 69 Love Songs-esque smarm. Dear croons: “My heart it weighs about a ton in snakes/ I feel hollow as a grave/ I have to dig every day.”
“I love the idea of the weight of snakes — that immensity coming out of your heart,” he says. “It’s a different kind of adjective, but I think it makes sense…. [I] don’t try to overcomplicate things but just try to give a new perspective on the way that I can make life into a riddle.”
As much as the album is riddled with, well, riddles, it’s still starkly personal, hence the cover bearing Dear’s face commissioned by friend and artist Michael Cina. “We spent almost an hour talking about colors, themes,” Dear remembers. “The goal was to have an abstract image on the album cover.” At the end of the conversation, Dear asked his friend if he could also paint him a portrait, and Cina threw away all the ideas they had just cooked up. Dear’s face would be the album cover, not something abstract. Not something strange.
“It was one of those ideas that comes after the fact and you realize, ’Wait a minute, these songs are very honest, and it is a bit more of a personal album than I’ve done, where I’m actually exposing a bit more on the lyrical side, and a portrait would be very fitting for that,'” Dear says.
The cover art also highlighted another connotation of the title: Dear’s connection to his music. “It’s one of those double meanings where the beams are the songs. They’re the kind of support beams of my life. They’re the pillars that are holding up the album and at the same time holding up my creative building,” he explains.
Just as the in-Dear’s-face album cover and more personal lyrics address the listener more directly than the allegorical Black City, the extras that Dear has outfitted Beams with also give fans a deeper glimpse into the musician’s world. Black City came with a “totem,” or an ominous building-shaped object that unlocked the album stream. For Beams, Dear is focusing more on video releases, like an album teaser produced by M ss ng P eces in July depicting the creation of the album cover. The teaser also includes friends of Dear — like trumpet player Greg Paulus and poet Jason Charles — creating art inspired by Dear’s single “Street Song.” (Dear has exclusively given us a copy of Charles’s poem, click here to read.) That pretty much encapsulates the feeling of the album — it’s a personal look, to be sure, but Dear isn’t going to go totally bare for you. You — like his artist friends — will have to build out your own interpretation in the end.
Perhaps more will be revealed, however, in the coming albums that Dear releases, as he has recently moved his studio out of New York City, placing himself further away from the “that force of nonstop living” he existed in while creating Black City and whose tail end inspired Beams.
“I finally got in there and started making some music very loudly for the first time in a very long time, which was cool — not to have any neighbors to worry about. The gates are wide open right now, and I can do whatever I want,” he says. “Living in New York, you don’t always have the most thick walls, and you have to worry about people eavesdropping on you. You can tell yourself not to care about that, but there’s something in there that holds you back a little bit. But now, nobody but birds and bunny rabbits can complain.”
Beams is out now on Ghostly International. Stream it at Spin.