John Maus Songs

[Upset! The Rhythm; 2006]

Styles: synth-pop, new wave, post-punk, art rock
Others: Ariel Pink, Stephen Merritt, Scott Walker

Legend has it, John Maus came to Los Angeles from Minnesota to attend an artsy, musicy, and pricey college. While there, he met Ariel Pink (then Rosenberg); they musically freaked one another out and became lifelong friends (assuming they stay friends for another 50 years or so). This collection of songs, recorded between 1999 and 2004, documents his West Coast culture shock, and by the sound of his music, one gets the impression that, aside from a couple close friends and crucial meetings, California and art school pretensions haven't been kind to Maus' character.

Like Daniel Johnston's Songs of Pain, Maus is charming, and although we can presumably relate to his thematic troubles of relationships and environment, he also seems totally isolated from the rest of the world. There's nothing odd about his woes, yet Maus has a way of being acutely devastating, and he attacks on a deeply personal level. Lyrics about sex with Ringo Starr and incontinent grandmas should have the witty, sophisticated charm of They Might Be Giants or Ween, but instead they carry the tragic, existential tension of Scott Walker.

Stylistically, it makes sense that Maus and Pink would instantly hit it off. Both are musically well-informed and seem to cull from the same junkyard of '70s and '80s pop. Although they're aesthetically similar, the results are quite different. While Ariel sounds blissed-out in his world of make believe, he's also inviting, and it's easy to get lost with him. Pink isn't writing bubblegum or sunshine pop, but next to Maus, he might as well be Donnie Osmond. By contrast, John Maus' world is troubled and bleak. His songs are confident and full of ornate bass/keyboard-driven hooks with memorable vocals bellowed out in his masculine baritone glory. At the same time, it sounds as though the world has come crashing down on him. It's difficult to know exactly what he means with lines like, "I'm a cowgirl in a sick and twisted way/ Don't be afraid," but in context it's clear that he's struck a raw nerve, and music is part of his self-therapy. Some of his themes produce a visceral contact high equivalent to what he's thinking, but other times he's capable of being brutally blunt. The song "Of North of North Stars" is undoubtedly about being homesick, his contempt for Los Angles, and an honest, 'what the fuck am I doing with my life?' sentiment. "Real Bad Job" is comical, but it also accurately describes the depression and displacement that comes with realizing that it's hard to live comfortably or maintain personal identity when working for 'the man' 40 hours a week. No matter what he's singing about, it's always an effortless balance between weird visceral descriptions, deadpan humor, and the uncomfortably honest.

It's hard not be skeptical and mistake his sincerity for irony. To his credit, I'll assume that there's not an act being put on, that he's genuinely filled with love but cracking under the pressures of everyday life. It's also difficult to say whether this is the beginning of a long musical journey for Maus or a summary of his best years. Regardless, Songs is a refreshing example of the human condition, albeit more disturbed and unsettling than any Ariel Pink album.

1. Opening
2. Time to Die
3. Don't be a Body
4. That Night
5. Real Bad Job
6. Forever and Ever and Ever
7. Maniac
8. Just Wait Til Next Year
9. I'm Only Human
10. Less Talk More Action
11. Through the Skies for You
12. Blowing in My Mind
13. Of North of North Stars
14. It Takes Time
15. The Peace that Earth Cannot Give
16. And Heaven Turned to her Weeping

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