It's telling that the first track of Don Lifted's new album, Contour, is a cover of a song by electronica/low-fi/shoegaze phenom Alicks. That's because the album's tone is one of a deep, dark look inward — pioneering what may be considered a kind of hip-hop emo. Granted, not many emo records have lyrics like "Take pride in being a slave ... paid less 'cos I'm a n*gga," but such social commentary serves largely to set the stage for what is, at heart, an intensely personal work, evoking both the ennui of suburban life and the joys of a new romance.
The producer and composer, who uses his given name, Lawrence Matthews, when exhibiting his visual art, has always been intensely autobiographical. Those who witnessed his performance last year with the Blueshift Ensemble mostly saw his silhouette against a backdrop of home movies from his childhood. But the new album goes even deeper into his psyche.
"Contour is very much about a positive love and the beginnings of things," says Matthews. "Being out of high school and not knowing what the future is and having this youthful arrogance about a lot of things, love included. And obsession. [Previous album] Alero is about negative obsession. Contour is about positive obsession. Positive beliefs, and ideas about love and life, what things will be and what they can become."
Built largely on moody, ambient samples, punctuated with sparse, original guitar chords, the obsession conveyed is a particularly euphoric one, ostensibly focused on Matthews' girlfriend at the time. But it also captures the retrospective obsession one can feel for such happy episodes when those days are lost to the past.
"The album is a loop," Matthews explains. "There was a time period when I was really going through some stuff. I wasn't in a happy place. And I thought, if I could choose what heaven would be like, what time would it be? And it would be the time period of this album. You're falling in love for the first time, and it's perfect. You're graduating from high school. You're becoming an adult, but you don't have any of those adult responsibilities yet. You're just a kid, but you have a car and money in your pocket. There's this bliss to it."
Yet the true depth of the work stems from its exploration of how one hangs on to such blissful moments as life rolls on. Covering "The Open" by Alicks was deliberate because it "talks about being stuck and always being in that place, and telling another person, 'No matter what goes on, I'm gonna be here. I'll be in this place. Come and get me.' That's why I was drawn to that song and wanted to cover it. It opens up and ends the album in the same way. It loops into infinity, because this is not real life, this is art."
Recreating that place meant revisiting the physical geography of his past, to the point where some titles, like "5150 Goodman Rd.," simply evoke an address. "It's so place driven," he says. "Because I'm seeing streets and street lights and street names and people and places. I can go there and feel the same way I did in 2008 or 2009."
It's a hunt that continues to offer unexpected treasures. "I'm releasing a song with ThankGod4Cody on October 26th. Cody is a platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated artist and producer known for his production on SZA's Ctrl. And this is the first of a few extra singles that still exist in the same universe and time period as Contour."
But Matthews emphasizes that his ultimate goal is to move beyond that universe. "I use my past to inspire my future. Instead of letting this make me a bitter person, I explore the good and bad of it. And that allows me to close the door on something. Now that this album is released and done, I can move on to where my life is."