Monday, August 8, 2011
John Maus - We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves
2. Quantum Leap
3. ...And the Rain
4. Hey Moon
5. Keep Pushing On
6. The Crucifix
7. Head for the Country
8. Cop Killer
9. Matter of Fact
10. We Can Breakthrough
John Maus first gained notice while collaborating and playing with fellow Cal Arts classmate Ariel Pink more than 10 years ago. Though both have since developed cultish followings by releasing distinctive takes on murky lo-fi, Maus has steeped his music in new wave signifiers, an association furthered by his deep, commanding voice. Whether he's evoking Joy Division's Ian Curtis or Bauhaus' Peter Murphy, Maus opts to abstract the genre, inserting noise into unexpected places and walking the line between sincerity and surreality.
From the beginning, he's been an artist fascinated by the parameters, paradoxes, and possibilities of pop. Earlier this year, Maus took a walk through New York's Central Park Zoo with a journalist from Self-Titled. "I didn't realize that the music I was making was especially weird," he says in the piece. "Honestly, I thought I was making Top 40 kind of stuff. It wasn't until people kept telling me so that I realized my work was thought of as something 'other' than that." If you're at all familiar with the Minnesota native's swampy retro-futurist synth-pop, you may understand why he might place emphasis on the word "other." One experience with his body of solo work (or brave live performances) makes clear that his could be categorized as "outsider" art, but it's difficult to say that without also seriously considering why. He makes thought-provoking music that's disguised as something else.
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, his latest full-length, is the most vibrant and toothsome expression of Maus' pursuits yet. He keeps his vocals awash in gothic reverb and echo-driven effects, blurring the lines between what he's saying and emoting. Sometimes, as on "Cop Killer", a Jan Hammer-indebted number on which Maus sings over an iced bed of keys, the results are outlandish and oddly funny at the same time, in the way that certain scenes in David Lynch films can leap from chilling to comically exaggerated. ("Cop killer, let's kill the cops tonight/ Cop Killer, kill every cop in sight," he sings.) And then there's "Matter of Fact" immediately thereafter, a song whose staccato, orc-like chorus line is "Pussy is not a matter of fact." They're not the kind of earworms you want to find yourself singing aloud in public, but it might happen anyway.
Sonically, Maus works a minimal, primitive setup: sputtering drum machines and an arsenal of 1980s-vintage synth presets undercut his lyrics just as much as those exaggerated, often grotesque vocal turns do. Sometimes, these songs seem to exist solely to pose questions: Top 40 cheese or ironic cool? High-brow or low-brow? Honesty or posturing? Artifice or reality? But what makes We Must Become his finest full-length yet is how fluidly he communicates it all by foregrounding melody. On "Keep Pushing On", Maus' monastic, cellar-level singing lends the song the feel of a Gregorian chant-led exercise tape. Though the vocals and basslines on arpeggiated fever dream "Quantum Leap" mirror Joy Division's to an almost cartoonish degree, you still get a good sense of Maus' persona in the music. There's a genuine, almost maniacal sense of glee in the way he seems to approach each turn.
When Maus takes the stage, he plays with notions of performance by singing over his own backing tracks. He pogos, he screams, he runs-in-place and pulls his hair and spits and sweats and clenches up until he looks like he might burst through his button-down and chinos. It's hard to look away. Now Maus has a full set of songs whose architecture is just as sophisticated and riveting in actuality as it is in theory. While earlier records have been riddled by experiments gone awry (see: "Rights for Gays" and "Tenebrae", from 2007's Love Is Real), they also didn't feature the revolving parts and aerodynamic hooks of "Believer", the closing track here and one that glitters from any angle. And although there's another vocalist at his side in the lullaby lilt of "Hey Moon" (songwriter Molly Nilsson, who wrote and performed the song on her 2008 album These Things Take Time), the way Maus sings to the heavens makes it sound as though he's no longer alone with his thoughts. Spend a lot of time with this record, and it's hard not to feel like you're right there with him...www.pitchfork.com