John Maus’ “We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves”

“Getting past the craziness, it’s as if [John Maus] is trying to alert the audience of something that’s right under their nose.” -Grafton Tanner

Grafton Tanner

out of 10

John Maus
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
June 28, 2011
Domino Record Co

To see John Maus live is to witness an odd spectacle. He screams, beats his chest, slaps himself in the head. I mean, it’s quite a wacky sight. Getting past the craziness, it’s as if he is trying to alert the audience of something that’s right under their nose.

Maus is a philosopher, an academic, and a synthpop savior. He’s a philosophy professor working on a Ph.D who likes to gush over such perfect symphony-ending modulations as E-flat to C major. He’s collaborated with Ariel Pink and has played keyboards with Panda Bear. And his songs are riddled with catchy lines like, “Pussy is not a matter a fact” and “SOMEBODY TELL ME THE TRUTH!” None of these things make sense, and that’s what makes John Maus one intriguing son of a gun. While we’re all in the audience going bananas at one of his over-the-top live shows (his t-shirts show an outline of him screaming with the caption “I saw John Maus LIVE” under it), he’s plotting the trajectory of music itself. He’s looking back at everything that has come before and understanding what it is now that he has to do. He wants to wake up the world. We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is the alarm.

The first time John’s voice is heard on the album, it sounds as if it’s coming from the world of sleep or the sea on the front cover. The vintage synths are cranked up front and center, but John is in another world, that deep, round voice barely discernible through the fog of tape hiss and swirling arps. His voice is reminiscent of Joy Division and Bauhaus, but songs like “We Can Breakthrough” and “Keep Pushing On” are more Gregorian chant than anything else. Like hearing a synth orchestra play in a vast cathedral. John’s bass parts provide a proper counterpoint to his vocal and synth lines and remind me not of any synthpop forbearer but of such melodic line masters as Bach and Beethoven. These musical connections are no coincidence; John is extremely well-versed in the classical mode of part writing. He knows how the greats of music history thought, stripped of every costume and ornament. The only thing left is the music, plain and simple.

There is an obsession on Pitiless Censors over the “one line” or the mantra. The singular code to be repeated that can sum up our time. This is John’s goal: to rid the musical populace and the world of talking about nothing. Which is odd seeing that John’s voice and lyrics are so obscured, it’s hard to make out anything at all he is singing. There’s the chorus in “…And The Rain” that goes, “And the rain came down. Down, down down.” It repeats, and it’s catchy as hell. It can also sum up a basic human emotion that can be overwrought and hammed up in ordinary, mainstream pop music. But John is fed up with the mainstream conversation, so he strips everything to its core. “The rain came down,” John sings. It’s the summation of sorrow and the collapse of everything. Note, also, that this is the song with that pivotal verse that reads, “Somebody tell me the truth.” There isn’t one, and John knows this. There is an endpoint, he believes, that can at least arrive in the neighborhood of this musical “truth.” Language is the barrier, John has stated in interviews. The music has to push the line forward, and the lyrics have to come back to zero.

Above and beyond all of John’s politics and his reasons behind the musical decisions, Pitiless Censors can stand on its own musical merits. The album’s mix of songs is stellar. The synths are loud and warm, and his bass guitar parts groove and bump with such natural rhythm. The songs are short and easily digestible, and that’s what keeps me coming back over and over. There are new things to be noticed over and again with repeated listens, but the familiarity of the songs is so striking that I feel I’ve been listening to them for years on end. Or I’m revisiting them after years of having not heard them. It’s quite a strange experience for one who grew up in the 80’s or early 90’s, and John is making music to force you to relive that memory, whether it actually existed or not.

Listening to the songs on the album makes me want to bask in the warm glow of analog synths forever. But hearing him talk in interviews about the state of music and the history and where we are going makes me want to change everything. It makes me want to delve deeper into the locker that John references in “Head For The Country.” There is something there, he believes, that has been silenced by the rapid-moving world we live in, and at the end of that song, he sings, “This is where a human being finds himself.” And then the chorus: “Head for the country,” repeated over and over. Get out, he is saying. Move from your smug and stagnant position, the malaise that has overtaken you as you communicate through type and text and stare blankly at a screen for your hours of the day. We can return to something more, both musically and politically. Pitiless Censors is the first step.