Minutes before Matthew Dear was set to take the stage, Helga Davis spoke to a crowd of around 100 people, recounting a brief pitch she was just given on the act from a 17-year-long follower of his music. There were labels signifying the show’s significance — it was Dear’s first concert in New York since supporting his 2012 album Beams and christened the first New York Public Radio-hosted Electronic Music Nights at Public, the then-freshly minted hotel/venue complex from storied nightlife developer Ian Schrager — but she wished to hear, from a fan, what made his music powerful.
“I think what she said that’s most important is that through those years, she has been curious,” said Davis, a correspondent for the internet radio collective New Sounds. “He has kept her curious about what it is that he’s doing…and that’s why I’m going to stay.”
Part of what makes Dear such a curiosity is how nimbly he has infused himself into the year’s musical scenery, welcoming divergent listeners to look in on his work from their most comfortable vantage points. In January came his long-overdue contribution to DJ-Kicks, which paired his tough-bodied tech alias Audion with “Wrong With Us,” a sulking, relationship-existentialism groove that escaped the confines of the series’ mixed-through compilation to become a fan favorite. “Bad Ones,” the latter of Matthew Dear’s two recent singles, is a Sunday-driving duet featuring Tegan and Sara, syncing up with the duo as they and their fans contently reflect on their evolution since The Con. If you’ve been following teen stars Aly & AJ’s decade-later return as luscious pop crafters, you also might’ve come across his buzzy remix of their single “Take Me.”
Dear took to the stage alone, test-flying tracks from his forthcoming album (“I hate the old songs!” told the crowd, somewhat facetiously. “But for you, I’m going to play them anyway.”). The still-gestating LP is expected sometime in 2018 and still untitled, though a now-fixed glitch in Google would name it as Open. His first new offering for his captive audience, featuring guitar work by gargoyled post-punk band and fellow Detroit musicians Protomartyr, signal further in the direction of his claustrophobic lead single “Modafinil Blues.” Whereas moments on albums like Black City and Beams gave listeners dispirited looks at the outside world, Matthew Dear in 2018 appears to be telling us, with a powdery, robin’s-egg palette, that those intangible items that we fear have steeped inside us.
The older tracks on setlist seemed stacked specifically as contrast, favoring Dear’s most sludge-coated grooves. The torture-device buzz of the bass on “You Put a Smell on Me” beamed beneath Public Arts’ low-clearance ceiling. Dear’s vocal sampling on “Fighting is Futile” — both pre-recorded and live, through a duo of delay and distortion pedals — overflowed with static and flaring vocal tics, ratcheting the unsteady devotion of the lyrics up to an almost menacing level.
Songs would screech and shriek, but nurture a clubby kernel of danceability. Mid-song, he would arch and bend like a decaying tree, urging the song’s subjects to run in his croaking baritone; immediately after, he’d shoot a glimmering smile and shout-out his two young daughters. These are the curiosities that give Matthew Dear a kind of absorbing versatility, offering doors of all kinds for new fans to step through.