Last August John Maus gave a bravura performance in an interview that dragged him from relative obscurity for all the wrong reasons. At once irritable and over-articulate in response to the feature’s frothy tone, Maus brattily brought up Iraq War atrocities in response to a question asking him what his current ringtone was and expressed glee at the demise of record stores. Just the month before, his Alain Badiou-quoting We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves had earned the Best New Music accolade, but this was something else.
Maus’ long-time obscurity and intellectual chops – currently working on two PhDs, he was a keyboard player for Ariel Pink way back in 1999 – suggested a PR stunt, but the answers he gave around the outbursts, too considered to be anything but frank and tangled in a kind of casually spoken academicese, suggested something honest about the slip-ups. Favourite new artist? Odd Future (“It’s at the point of piteously forgetting the human condition and becoming its own fetish”). Favourite song of all time? ‘Nun Will Die Sonn’ So Hell Aufheh’n’ by Gustav Mahler (“Maybe… Who can give an answer?”). Last great book read? Jean-Luc Nancy’s Corpus. Favourite TV Show? South Park. The Internet looked on and asked: is this guy for real?
His music does little to solve the mystery. Maus’ two most recent albums, Love Is Real and the aforementioned We Must Become…, both smear themselves in the kind of soft-focus ’80s synth-pop whose ungainliness and naïve futurism has long been flipped to signify a detached, ironic cool. Maus himself sings in a dank, basement-level drone that springs between theatrically hammy and deadpan while performing songs like the faux-disco anthem ‘Rights for Gays’ (with the catchy, repeated refrain: “Rights for gays, oh yeah!”), and the Alpha Centauri anti-cop dirge ‘Cop Killer’ (again, another catchy mantra: “Cop Killer, let’s kill the cops tonight/Cop Killer, kill every cop in sight”).
A sixteen track record of unreleased material and odd-ends, A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material works less on the allure of the potential buried gem or underrated hit, and more on the hope that there’ll be some explanation on hand. The album obliges by listing the tracks’ completion dates – running from 1999 to 2010 – as if serving as a study guide to help answer the big questions. Is he an honest-to-god eccentric creating interesting, sometimes brilliant songs – in a recent interview he confessed: “I thought I was making Top 40 kind of stuff” – or is he just a post-graduate crank, knee-deep in Frankfurt School Theory, sniggering at popular culture?
The record holds some partial answers. The oldest track, ‘Fish with Broken Dreams’, exposes a time before the foggy synth wash, instead preferring frolicking Dungeon & Dragons piano, though the same winking melodrama remains, in the form of a proggy instrumental break and those hammy vocals. ‘The Law’, ‘Big Dumb Man’, and ‘The Fear’ – all 2003 productions – are the first songs that are recogisably John Maus – with tinny drum machine, cloudy synth, and echo-chamber vocals. But another 2003 cut, ‘Lost’, suggests at an interesting road not taken. Atonal, horror-house piano, burping bass and flurries of scuzzy guitar accompany Maus’ dorky vocal this time. For an academic sophisticate it would’ve been the obvious route to follow to show off the same high-brow, modernist impulses that his compulsive Adorno name-dropping does, but it’s a sound that’s rejected for poppier pastures.
It’s that eagerness to embrace pop music in spite, or perhaps because, of his intellectual haughtiness that most strongly suggests some sincere approach or intentional conflict. On the record the best example of the sometimes strange, always fascinating tendency in Maus’ music is ‘My Hatred is Magnificent’, a song that opens with ecclesiastical, monolithic stabs of space synth – like an awe-filled call to communion, or a hymn for the apocalypse that is hinted at on the album art – but before long the song launches into ’80s car-case territory. The synth, now cheap sounding, plastic-y, fills in the gaps with hair metal-ish noodles and cheesy filigree, and Maus launches into one of his goofy mantras – the title of the song, obviously: “My hatred, my hatred, my hatred’s magnificent”. But after a foggy instrumental interlude the song flips back into the exalted and a baroque, ascending chorus has Maus mewling honest sentiment (“I run, I run for you”) that feels doubly affecting, less naïve because of the intervening wink. Naturally, the song stops cold not long after, but it’s a neat summation of what he does at his best. For every ‘Rights for Gays’ there’s a ‘Believer’, and as much as most people (sincerely) prefer the later, maybe they need each other to really work.
A few days after that Pitchfork interview generated much empathic head shaking and snarky eye rolling across the Internet, Maus took to twitter to tell his side of the story. Full of contrition and apparent sincerity, he explained that the record stores he wanted closed down were “the Megastores of the world”. Less like a PhD student and more like a teen idol thrust into the spotlight too soon, Maus confessed that the idea that people would react to anything he said was “still a novelty”. It was a move as intense and over-verbose as anything he does – after posting the apology, he eagerly engaged with fans on twitter – but this time it seemed genuine. Apart from the occasional return to the social media site – in March he explained Walter Benjamin to Pitchfork-founder Ryan Schreiber, in June he expressed an unguarded desire (“just putting it out there”) to create the score and diegetic sound for a feature film – Maus’ twitter account is mostly dormant. It wouldn’t be as fun if he gave away too many of his intentions.
Listen to A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material