The British musician Matt Cutler has been making music as Lone since 2007. He’s developed a strong aesthetic, pairing big-tent dance signifiers — synths with a bright, metallic sheen, confident beats — with an intimacy that at times assumes a pre-existing bond with even first-time listeners. On his new album, Reality Testing, Cutler adeptly bridges the gap between the dance floor and the bedroom; it borrows boom-bap beats from hip-hop and boasts melodies that sparkle like a cloudless night sky, but its unexpected twists and turns give it the feel of meeting a stranger and having such a satisfying interaction that the rest of the world drops out of sight.
Cutler has talked about how Reality Testing is named after a technique through which a person can take control of a lucid dream. Even though he was quick to add that he’s only had a few of them (and they were “terrifying”), this concept is of a piece with Lone’s overall aesthetic; while the music doesn’t lack in bass, many of Lone’s best songs are driven by keyboards played in their upper registers — the sound of the nervous system wresting command from those parts of the body that are ruled by groove. Take “2 Is 8,” which could tell the story of experiencing a summer day from afar; a sidewalk strut (complete with cowbell counterpoint and cheering street-corner kids) provides the low end, but the song is actually carried by a looping melody that sounds like a Gamble & Huff horn section squeezed into an analog synth’s circuitry. Eventually evening-haze drones overtake the proceedings, and the beat drops out completely.
Lone’s reliance on treble, as opposed to bass, makes even the best speakers sound as tinny as the single speaker installed in, say, a 1978 Buick; as intricate as they are, the songs are just as satisfying on a massive stereo as they might be on a clock radio.”Airglow Fires,” the showy first single, is led by gasping proto-techno keyboard blasts that give way to glittering synths; the beat shimmies along until the keyboards refract and explode.
Some of the tracks on Reality Testing serve as clearly-defined callbacks to other eras. The brooding “Jaded” brings to mind the kind of downtempo tracks that low-lit lounges favored in the early ’00s, although its twinkling arpeggios and come-down coda add a knowing edge to the proceedings; “Meeker Warm Energy” suggests a scorching, lazy day in pre-gentrification Bushwick. Cutler has talked about being particularly inspired by Detroit techno, Chicago house and ’90s hip-hop, and he’s a devoted follower of the much-beloved Detroit producer J Dilla. His work makes plain the many links between dance music and hip-hop’s building blocks; MC slash fashion plate Azealia Banks has borrowed his “Pineapple Crush” and “Aquamarine” for her own tracks, and the low-in-the-mix rhymes scattered throughout Reality Testing suggest more than a few jumping-off points for people who might follow suit.
But the feeling given off by Reality Testing goes beyond simple tab a/slot b nostalgia-matching; if anything, the reference points add up to a feeling of presence, of Cutler being completely absorbed by the sounds emanating from his collection of electronics and brain waves. Earlier this month, he talked about his love for the late-’90s video game Music; “I made tracks with that for maybe two years. That’s my favorite game ever,” he told Pitchfork. Listening to songs crafted by players of Music and its ilk hint at a spiritual connection between that game and Lone’s aesthetic. While Reality Testing has more of a link to Cutler-the-human thanks to its wider sonic palette — which includes snatches of sounds from his everyday life — there’s a sense that Lone’s music exists not just to help listeners while away their days, but as an enjoyable escape for himself. Inevitably at those times, memories of good (but not necessarily better) days filter in — hazily and maybe lacking in detail, but with just enough reference points to bring a smile to one’s lips.