John Maus We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

[Ribbon/Upset the Rhythm; 2011]

Styles: synth pop, new wave, lo-fi
Others: R. Stevie Moore, Ariel Pink, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, How To Dress Well, Joy Division

Through no fault of his own, John Maus has become somewhat of a cult figure in the four years between his most current album and 2007’s Love Is Real. Fate and a certain fetishism for vintage synthesizers have conspired to place him at the nexus of a number of recent popular movements, including the bastard pseudo-genre of chillwave, minimal wave revivalism, and the weathered 90s R&B re-imaginings of artists like How To Dress Well and d’Eon. Thus, Maus is also implicated in the greater trend of hypnagogic pop, a characterization that he strongly refutes, as his music is less a product of memory or nostalgia and more a result of willful existence and acknowledgement of the value of “old synthesizers that can be mobilized today in interesting ways.” All these tendencies to graft Maus to the mass as a spiritual godfather to many of this moment’s most critically-adored (or at least critically discussed) trends must be a tough pill to swallow for a guy who rails against the power of “The Police.” “The Police,” as Maus defines the term in his Theses on Punk Rock, is global capitalism’s uncanny ability to co-opt and ultimately kill the vitality of an artist or a movement by tying them to a strictly-defined, essentially perishable label. However, as much as Maus wants to resist commodification, he’s arguably already been so, along with like-minded lo-fi synth role models such as Ariel Pink and R. Stevie Moore.

Taking inspiration from the work of philosopher Alain Badiou, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves is a statement by Maus about resistance to the current and increasingly pervasive forms of mass communication. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in The Medium is the Massage, “Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and pours upon us instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men.” Maus certainly understands a certain notion of self-censorship as he is careful not to overtly reveal too much about his influences, which in his mind would help anchor him to a particular school. But far from censoring himself, in interviews Maus is a fountain of academically-founded ideas and strong convictions, a virtual whirlwind of verbal explosions and manic gesturing, a fact that’s not surprising considering his sometimes day-job as a political philosophy professor.

With such high-minded ideas, one would almost expect Maus to be crafting arcane experimental music; instead, Maus bristles at the sort of obfuscated discourse often created and upheld by, as he would have it, the sophisticated and exclusionary contemporary art world. With statements like “Pop is the truth of the moment” and “It’s our task as artists to make an intensive use of a major language,” he draws a deep line in the sand. He thinks experimental drone musicians are a silly aberration in the 21st century, and that only by engaging with pop music can any true discourse be created (pop music being that “major language”). However, that’s not to say his reverb-drenched synth pop is anti-intellectual; quite the opposite, it only seeks to be the pinnacle of inclusion, and by embracing a form that has stroked the ears of the general populace for the better part of three decades, Maus looks to not only generate enjoyment but also discussion. His densely-layered compositions bear all the hallmarks of groups like Human League or Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and his caved-in vocals strongly reflect a spectral Ian Curtis, as if the Joy Division icon’s voice wasn’t affecting enough as is. Indeed, in his live performances, Maus is an inspirational figure, far removed from cold intellectualism. Completely devoid of pretension and full of fist-pumping, sweat-soaked catharsis, he strives for and achieves a fluent and singular use of that major language but littered with his peculiar inflection. Lacking the mass group participation that someone like Dan Deacon miraculously inspires, Maus still seems to get his life affirming message across loud and (at least experientially, if not vocally) clear.

The penultimate, defining track of Pitiless Censors is undoubtedly “Believer.” Overly a deceptively simple but strong-spined backing track of standard new wave bass and simple drums, Maus beats his chest and screams from the bottom of a well about being a believer over surging, harpsicordial synthesizer. Maus has often spoken of his love for medieval and renaissance fugues, and similar to how that music functioned as spiritual experience, so does the dense, pillowy gradations of sound on “Believer.” It’s often overstated that music of this ilk is worthy to soundtrack the wide-eyed romance of John Hughes films, but with Maus, you understand that, while it was certainly not his intention to evoke any kind of 80s nostalgia, especially given the vintage tools he employs, the immediacy and power of a song such as “Believer” is irrevocably given to that sort of grand emotional scope.

On the surface, a track like “Believer” would appear to be solipsism from such an impassioned evangelical, but it belies something deeper about the music of John Maus. In interviews and occasionally in his music, he has an angry, cynical streak that betrays him as a wounded idealist. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that making music comes naturally to him. He’s spoken of the belabored process that led to Pitiless Censors and the doubt in his own abilities to realize the sounds in his head, so, therefore, songs like “Believer” and the motivational tools “Keep Pushing On” and “We Can Break Through” represent not only his triumphs over his own limitations, but are also some sort of meta-inspiration that his vision of pop music can be as influential as he’d like it to be. When he is engaged in this sort of inspirational cheerleading, Maus is, well, inspiring, and it doesn’t limit or detract from his ability to deliver truly great pop songs that still somehow fit into his philosophical structure. “Hey Moon” is an arresting example of the possibilities of Maus engaging in pure pop bliss. A duet with Molly Nilsson, who originally penned this song, it’s nocturnal and deeply romantic in a way that only moonlit romance can be.

What makes Pitiless Censors what it is, as opposed to his past records, is Maus having refined the many meaningful facets of his music. A philosophical tract such as “Cop Killer,” which expounds on his previously mentioned idea of resisting “The Police” (or commodification), rather than adhering to the visceral violence of Body Count’s infamous provocation, the song supports forceful intellectual resistance over icy, sci-fi sonic pastures that paint a picture of a gritty, slow-motion massacre. Sonically, there are other chintzy, horror-laced numbers like “Quantum Leap” that somehow manage to successfully coexist with the aforementioned soaring romantic highs of “Hey Moon.” Especially on “Quantum Leap,” the comparisons to one-time compatriot Ariel Pink are irrefutable, but whereas Pink succeeded with a kind of vaudevillian power pop on last year’s Before Today, Maus keeps things stringently in the synth pop/new wave arena. And let’s not forget he is much of a progenitor of this sound as Pink, even though Pink has tended to be the headline-grabber.

Being an academic, John Maus understands the imperative to only release bodies of work that are conceptually sound and completely actualized. With Pitiless Censors, he sought to break into a new creative period but was disappointed that it was only a “consummation” or logical conclusion to the sound on his previous two widely-available albums (Songs and Love Is Real). Based on the evidence here, Maus needn’t have any reservations about the body of work that he has released into the world. Pitiless Censors is a sparkling album, a lo-fi synth pop masterpiece that manages to give endless aural delights while still being intellectually engaging, and despite having been caught at the center of a whirlpool of current movements, all of which reflect some aspect of Maus’ style, he has only cemented his identity as a singular, unimpeachable figure. When confronted with music like this, it’s impossible not to be a believer.

Links: John Maus - Ribbon/Upset the Rhythm


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