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John Maus is a truly enigmatic musician. Broadly cut from the synth pop cloth, he’s fashioned the frosty minimalism of its fabric into a cloak of infinite meaning, genuine grace and absurdist humor over the course of three defining albums since 2006. His music is a highly mutable affair, whilst often described as retro-futurist on behalf of the 80’s drum machines and synth sounds employed, John’s music is more personal than the nostalgic re-tread implied. There’s a cinematic quality to his songs, with pathos conjured through propelling bass-lines, trailing arpeggios and of course his deeply resonant vocal. Moroder helped map out the territory but Maus is more interested in seeking cadence through his love of Renaissance polyphony and the experimentation behind post punk. It’s an amalgamation of musical ideas as radical as its intent.
Maus is a ‘man out of time’ trying to make sense of the inhumanity of our world through his mobilisation of the language of punk rock. His aim is true as he reaches for the seemingly impossible. It’s a want to emerge as part of greater multiplicity, to appear, to become, to connect that powers his songs and the man himself.
It’s now been six years since the widely lauded album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves (2011) appeared like a thunderbolt of maniacal energy and turned everyone’s heads. Now regarded an experimental pop classic, Pitiless Censors was a huge breakthrough for Maus as a recognised artist and led to a vast reappraisal of his past work. Debut album Songs (2006) and the masterful follow up Love Is Real (2007) sounded better than ever the second time round for this groundswell of new followers. After touring Pitiless Censors around the world and pulling together a collection of rarities and unreleased tracks, Maus then returned to academic pursuits. In 2014, he was awarded a doctorate in Political Philosophy for his dissertation on communication and control. Shortly thereafter, he began building his own modular synthesizer, etching the printed circuit boards, soldering components, and assembling panels, until he had an instrument that matched his vision. With this prodigious task completed Maus turned his hand back to song writing and began work on what is now his fourth album proper Screen Memories.
Screen Memories was written, recorded, and engineered by Maus over the last few years in his home in Minnesota, known genially as the Funny Farm. It’s a solitary place situated in the corn plains of rural American Midwest. The landscape is as majestic as it is austere and inevitably some of the sub-zero winter temperatures creep into the songs as do the buzzing wasps of summer.
Screen Memories unfolds like a pageant, with its variety of songs tendering sunshine and shadow throughout. “The Combine” leads the procession with an apocalyptic stateliness all of its own. Clusters of chords dart between the solid rhythm track and artfully chimed bells. “It’s going to dust us all to nothing, man” intones Maus assuredly, “I see the combine coming”. Tracks like “Sensitive Recollections” and “Walls of Silence” overflow with the elegiac splendor we’ve become accustomed too from Maus’ previous work, at once mournful, yet full of redemption. Whilst “Find Out” is a persistent thrill ride of guitar histrionics and instructive demands amidst the sputtering drum machines. “Over Phantom” channels a similar perpetual energy with its hyperactive shifts of harmony and grand flourishes of swirling echo. “I am a phantom over the battlefield” booms Maus miles above the vast acres of dazzling bright melody. Many of John’s lyrics adopt this Spartan approach, yet their reiteration throughout the song bears up with their meaning shifting through repetition. “Teenage Witch” and “Pets” deploy a similar tactic, the latter teaming up one of John’s most droll lyrics with a colossal bass figure integrally linked to the song as a whole by way of forgotten thematic devices such as augmentation, stretto, and inversion. The lyrics at the end of the track underscore the album’s eschatological bent, “standing between time and its end.” “Decide Decide” finds Maus in dreamier climes, its arrangement of drums and exquisitely eddying keyboard lines tumble evocatively into huge oceans of ambience. Comparably quixotic synth-drifts come to the fore on “Edge Of Forever” too, the song sounding as if it was beamed in from a distant celestial sphere. “Touchdown” meanwhile is a great example of how Maus builds apprehension within his songs, it’s a primed and focused anthem, all scintillating keys and monumental beat. The tension only breaks once for a decidedly ebullient interlude with Maus echoing commands to “forward drive across the line!” That same feeling of your heart-racing away from you is also present in the taut track “The People Are Missing” (the only condition upon which any real politics can be founded), which captures some of the intensity and passion of John’s frenzied live performances.
“Bombs Away” draws the album to a close. The track sounds like a chase becoming a hunt and was co-written by Matt Fishbeck and Ariel Pink (whom Maus used to play with in Haunted Graffiti). Through the whole album Maus has an undeniable talent in grasping the mettle of each song, reaching within and building up a sincere core, before teasing out the edges in acknowledgement to the very ridiculousness of its existence. Rather than creating these songs through an enjoyment of the process Maus considers himself more in the role of someone discovering them buried just beneath the surface. Perhaps the songs presented here are the ones that mask his real intentions, Freud pressing record and turning the TV channel to snow. All we can be certain of now though is that John Maus is back and he sounds gloriously alive. The triumph of the human is upon us and all the false gods and bad jokes will be the first to fall.