It’s hard to tell whether Black City is a step forward or a step back in Matthew Dear’s progression as a bona fide songwriter: All 10 tracks have the feel and structure of actual songs (rather than thinly modified club tracks), but not many are actually good songs. On his third solo album, Dear leaves the dance floor for a dimly lit lounge in which coolly detached people satisfy their impersonal indulgences. With synths throbbing in minor keys building over multi-layered percussion and stabbing flickers of electronica, Dear grooves to a downtempo funk that sluggishly plods through thick, oppressive atmosphere. Not helping things is Dear’s unsettlingly expressionless guttural/falsetto vocals, which sound like a harmony of Dan Deacon’s cartoon voices and Christian Bale’s Batman; granted, these songs don’t exactly require vocal range, but Dear’s Stephin Merritt impression often distracts from his songs more than it complements them. And though Black City is ambitiously eclectic, no tracks really stand apart: “Little People” picks up where David Bowie’s electronica experimentation left off, but loses its pop flair well before the ninth minute; the shoegaze of “Slowdance” seems more a result of musical tranquilizer than anything cerebral. In the end, Dear has successfully turned a tense, eerie mood into songs. They just aren’t songs most people will feel like hearing.
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