John Maus: We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves Review
Reviewing a new record from John Maus is a daunting task, particularly one titled We Must Become the Pitiless Censors or Ourselves, which is both the title of Maus’s newest project as well as a polite way of saying “shut up.” Austin, Minnesota’s Maus (fill in your “don’t you mean Texas” joke here) is a composer, a philosophy professor, an essayist on musical theory; he has collaborated with the likes of Ariel Pink, Panda Bear, and R. Stevie Moore. He is, in short, the kind of guy it’s probably best to not get into an argument about music with if you don’t want to look foolish.
At the same time Maus’s Pitiless is a new record like any other – it’s made up of musical notes, not esoteric bits of theory or philosophy. It can be judged on its own merits against whatever sort of expectations or tastes one brings to the table.
While Maus has stated that “all the so-called genres of pop are in themselves almost meaningless,” simply for a frame of reference one might begin with the New Wave/Post Punk genre as a starting point, and fill in the rest of the map from there. Pitiless is heavy on synths and Maus’s heavily reverbed vocals have a flat, monotone style to them reminiscent of Ian Curtis.
At the same time I would attempt to draw too many parallels with Maus’s sound on Pitiless and the New Wave/Post Punk bands of yore. To begin with Maus’s tunes are often very complex and involve multi-layered instrumentals (largely keyboard), distortion effects, as well as Maus’s own (often layered) vocals, as well as those of a female backup. The effect is nostalgic without any danger of being confused with the actual music it is influenced by. The argument “I liked this music when it was made the first time – in the eighties” isn’t really a valid one because Maus is creating sonic structures that create a novel new sound.
It would probably be more accurate to compare Maus’s music with that of likeminded artist Ariel Pink, who references the eighties in a similar, albeit unique way of his own. Where Pink is a low-fi art-punk Maus’s melodies are far more austere and beautiful in a classical sense. Maus may be an avant garde composer but his dreamy hooks and coherent structures make for orchestrations that are far more accessible than someone like Pink, who seems t o turn his melodies inside out.
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves contains ten moody tracks that cohere in a number of ways, but most noticeably in their continual youthful perspective. Beautiful piano-led “Hey Moon” sounds like the kind of angst-ridden poetry a love-struck teenager might put to the page. And certainly no one Maus’s age or my own could hear “Quantum Leap,” without rewinding in time to the time traveling early nineties TV show of the same name. In “Cop Killer” Maus again seems to use lyrics that seem to purposefully evoke a naïve young person’s viewpoint. The song is mostly a refrain of “Let’s kill the cops tonight / against the law” over heavily thrusting synths, which sounds like the message a white 1992 suburban teen might have taken away from Ice T’s controversial tune of the same name.
And besides the youthfulness (or perhaps as an additional part of it) Pitiless also occasionally evokes certain religious aspects, such as in the song called “The Crucifix” as well as the occasional foray into what sounds like the Germanic, organ-driven religious tunes you might find in a Lutheran hymnal. This is particularly evident in “…And the Rain,” but pop up elsewhere as well.
In his rambling essay on R. Stevie Moore, Maus states that in a particular tune RSM “exceeds standardization of form through affirmation of it,” and is as a result a genius though that “excessive affirmation.” If Maus’s goal in making Pitiless was a similar excessive affirmation of the pop form then perhaps he has succeeded: from a pop standpoint Pitiless is rock solid and eminently listenable.
I don’t really pretend to know exactly what Maus is talking about though so I’ll just have to continue to view Pitiless through the subjective and singular lens of pop music bias. For me, the record succeeds spectacularly. Maybe for you it will too.
— Jon Behm
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves will be available on 7/28 via Ribbon Music
John Maus: Site