My new year’s resolution is to read and write more about music (feel free to hold me to account for this). So it’s somewhat intimidating to try and make my fresh start with a blog post about John Maus….
Maus is himself an uber-articulate, academically minded gentleman, more often covered by the likes of The Wire adjectivising generously on his art as an immanent critique of pop music itself. Or something. Here he is talking about how he performs live…
…what he describes as the Hysterical Body may look to some like a man punching himself in the face whilst he sings over a backing track, but you can see that he’s very much Thought About It. [Shocking to think any artist would show so little regard for the medium of ‘live’ music *cough* – at least I delete the vocals on my tracks before I sing over them!.]
Clearly we’re dealing with a man who needs no help analysing what he does. Shall I plunge deep into the darkest depths of my long-neglected BA in English to deconstruct his lyrics? Shall I wield my literary scalpel and split signifieds from signifiers in his verse? Okay, let’s pick a lyric at random…
Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
Right now / Rights for gays / Oh yeah!
And medical care / for everyone!
Okay so I didn’t pick that at random. I picked it because it’s funny. One of two John Maus songs which has made me giggle on public transport during the last few weeks. The other is ‘Don’t Be A Body’ which I’ll let you discover for yourself (see playlist below).
‘Rights For Gays’ is from his 2007 album ‘Love is Real’. Lyrically it is something of a curveball, most of his other songs are less overtly daft – and if you read the Pitchfork review of the album, the writer seems to want to gloss over the song as being faintly embarrassing – bordering on inappropriate. But for me it does encapsulate what I think Maus is doing with most of his other stuff.
If you take it at face value ‘Rights For Gays’ comes across as a somewhat guileless lefty protest song. As if the person who wrote it sincerely wanted to unite the world behind their big positive message but couldn’t quite get the lyrical chops together to come up with anything better than ‘Rights for gays / oh yeah!’. The ‘medical care’ line feels like ‘and while we’re at it, I demand action on this other liberal poster issue’.
The early Maus stuff has a kind of ‘found’ quality to it. Like the ‘outsider music’ work compiled in that ‘Songs in the Key of Z’ book and CD. In particular it reminds me of Wesley Willis, the paranoid schizophrenic electro punk artist who made hundreds of near identical mini-anthems with stream of conscious pop culture heavy lyrics about pretty much whatever he last thought of, releasing them on dozens of short run self released albums.
Outsider music recordings generally feel like they’ve been made by someone who’s ‘missed something’ – some nuance of either the social context of pop music or of the form itself. They often come across as overly earnest, savant-like bursts of creativity, that survive only through the miracle of home recording (see also Jandek – who I’ve written about before, Daniel Johnston etc).
Except that Maus’ music isn’t, it’s made quite knowingly by a smartly dressed, well educated, seemingly fairly well-adjusted, and frankly quite attractive young man from Austin, Minnesota. The lo-fi nature of the music is presumably a logistical thing rather than a committed aesthetic choice, I’m guessing all his stuff is homemade in some way, but it certainly adds to the ‘vibe’. Whether he’s conscious of this I don’t know. As far as I know he’s using his real name, which would generally point away from an attempt to play a character. So who then is this ‘John Maus’ coming out of the speakers? Sure doesn’t seem like the same guy talking in that^ video.
The rest of his work poses the same questions. Even a less ostensibly silly track like ‘Do Your Best’, which immediately precedes ‘Rights for Gays’ on the album, seems to do pretty much the same thing.
Reach out your hand to the one alone
In your city tonight
You gotta do what’s right
In your city tonight
What? Really, John? You want me to go find someone who’s lonely and have a chat with them? Well okay….
This time the track is much doomier, slow chugging basslines and swelling synth pads, vaguely Joy Division-y. There’s no campy trill to his vocals, this is closer to his usual mode. But again the lyrics seem like a clumsy attempt to advocate some lefty cause – let’s all join a befriending service cos our favourite electro pop act tells us to! Or maybe he was just lonely when he wrote it… who knows?
And oh yeah, the music… ‘Electro pop’ pretty much suffices as a description of John Maus. Short of some more neo-classical stylings to the keyboard playing on his earlier stuff (a bit like the Magnetic Fields), and the slightly choral feel his layers of vocals often hint at the music is fairly straight retro electro. Usually a bass guitar chugging over unshowy drum programming, smothered in glistening synths. This isn’t sophisticated sound-designer stuff. The sounds he uses are straight out of your favourite ‘eighties presets’ sample pack, all drenched in unsubtle amounts of reverb.
There’s a seemingly wilful amateurishness to how it all comes together. His early albums have the occasional crackle and mic hiss, which is mostly gone on his ‘breakthrough’ record, 2011’s ‘We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves’. However there’s still a general lack of fidelity which gives it a ‘cheap horror film’ quality. Is this part of the schtick? See above.
Again this adds to the feel of the music as something ‘found’. Like there shouldn’t be a real guy called John Maus wandering round out there. We should be trying to track him down for a retrospective documentary, Searching For Sugar Man style, or Mingering Mike not waiting for him to tour and release a new record.
I’ve got to admit that it’s taken me a while to get to my current status as whatever the Maus equivalent of a Belieber is. On the listening post at Spillers I switched off ‘Streetlight’ about a minute in because the synths sounded naff and the vocals were just utterly lost in the reverb. I still think the synths sound naff and wish I could hear the lyrics better on some songs, but now I love it for the same reason. It also took me nearly twelve months after finally buying ‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’ to finally come to love it (I got it as part of a Bleep albums of the year bundle, if you were wondering).
It’s rare for me to listen to an artist on repeat, never mind one song or album. But last.fm tells me I’ve listened to Maus about 100 times in the last month, and that’s just iPod and laptop listens. He’s sent me back to the days of being a teenage pop fan, playing the same song on one side of a 7” over and over again.
Maus does seem to inspire the same in others. There’s a small, delightfully nutty online community dedicated to him called Mausspace. It wasn’t quite as Capslock House as I was hoping it might be, but there’s similar levels of adulation. If you search you can see a Happy Birthday message to John from his mum in one of the threads, it’s quite sweet.
So what swayed me? What made me a Mausketeer? Well I think it helps that his songs are catchy as fuck, and that even whilst you can sit and write a lovely blog post about the levels of irony in his work there’s still a core of soul in it all. Songs like ‘Bennington’, ‘Big Dumb Man’ and ‘The Fear’ give the impression of being rooted in real experience of demons and lost love, even as they use humour to introduce distance by sleight of hand (a technique I know well). And ‘Believer’, the last track from ‘…Censors’, has a soaring uplifting quality which isn’t remotely diminished by the fact you can’t really make out a word of what he’s saying. It’s one of two tracks – the other being ‘No Title (Molly)’ – that I wish went on for twice as long as it does.
Ultimately I think it’s those ambiguous lyrical and stylistic hooks that go along with the musical ones. He walks elegantly the tightrope between irony and earnestness, and wrong foots you with occasional moments of ‘hang on, what am I actually listening to here?’. You can’t hear ‘Rights for Gays’ and not do a double take. Maus has made something so convincingly ‘faux outsider’ (I feel a bit sick for coining that expression) that it is actually possible to forget that he’s out there washing his socks, eating bread, and finishing his PhD or whatever, and that believe that you live in a world where the guy in the video doesn’t exist, and ‘John Maus’ is the great lost King of Pop.
I will now scribble his lyrics on my exercise book.
If that’s whetted your appetite, here’s a Spotify Playlist I made of my ten favourite John Maus songs.