The image on the cover of John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is an airbrushed lighthouse shining its beam above some pretty vicious looking waves and into a dark, deep violet night. Like a lot of what Maus does, the image brings together the serious and the slightly silly. It is straightforward enough to take it as a metaphor-image for the album’s title: we are the lighthouse. The self that we have to censor is a vast, shadowy and turbulent ocean, small portions of which we have knowledge of via tenuous beams of light constantly obscured by chance conditions. There is without doubt something of German romanticism in the image, something of American coastline kitsch, something of the ostentatiously colored retro of the present caught in a dark and demented alley on the wrong side of town. It seems apt and it seems a little ridiculous in a way that is more and more endearing as one gets acquainted with the music.
John Maus’ world can seem like someplace else. Someplace, any place, not here. Pitiless Censors is saturated with synthesizers that surge and retreat, that distort and plunge words into the depths. But I never get the sense that anything Maus does is done to create distance, but rather a sense of mysterious interiority in the songs. This strange feeling of depth in the music, of things submerging and coming back to the surface, is in tune with the directness that the songs achieve through their simplicity and immediacy, and through Maus’ echoing baritone vocals that slide from poignant to charmingly over-the-top gothic vampirism. The latter end of the spectrum is in full effect when his vocals enter “Quantum Leap,” the former when during the same song he passionately asserts that “Heart to heart, mind to mind, we are the ones who seem to travel through time.” Maybe you want to laugh a little at first, but once you get caught up in the whirling mania of it you may just do a little fist pumping while your feet carry you in tightly danced circles.
The energy burning through Songs and Love is Real, Maus’ previous releases, is still here. It is an energy that brings to mind early punk, not for its lust for confrontation, but for the way a bassline and a steady beat, stripped of adornment, could be an explosion in a room full of the right people. There is plenty of adornment here but it never seems like too much; the gothy overtones veer away from outright doom, toward enthusiasm and some sort of bracing, childlike communion with repetition and magic. “Matter of Fact” with its very low-voiced mantra of “This is not a matter of fact,” bouncing beat, and composedly growling synthesizers is in the wigged-out, bleakly and obliquely humorous vein of beloved Maus tunes like “Maniac” and “Rights for Gays.” “Cop Killer,” a skewed child of the Body Count track of the same name, is totally, wonderfully demented, claustrophobic yet the kind of insanity I can comfortably, enthusiastically inhabit over and over again.
But this is a great album not only because there are some songs that continue to make apparent John Maus’ capacity to pummel the division between ironic and physical, direct pleasure, but because there are some moody, emotional songs that hit you square in the chest. The glowing, plaintive “Hey Moon,” sung as a duet with Molly Nilsson, who wrote the song, is a slow-moving companion for meandering through late nights, lonely and longing. “…And the Rain” leaves its chorus thrumming on the surface of the brain, its choral fields of starry synthesizers and rolling basslines hanging in the room like so much dreamlike violet fog. And the closer, “Believer,” is a big bursting expression of the will to find the most ecstatic meaning for life in the face of violence, coldness, and pettiness. The bass falls out, the sky opens up, light pours up through the cracks underfoot.
We do need to censor ourselves. There is no doubt about that. First thought is not always best thought, and if there is only affirmation of creativity and no asking of questions about the role of art in private and public life sometime soon we may drown in the unmitigated flow of mediocrity beneath which will lies so many things that could have actually made us stop and listen and watch, attentively and not simply eager to move on to the next distraction. Pitiless Censors is a keeper, a rare case of someone working with familiar shapes and colors but conjuring a feeling that describes new interstices to be leapt eagerly into.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today
Various Artists – The Minimal Wave Tapes
Maria Minerva – Noble Savage
Stream: John Maus – “Believer”