Altered Zones - Zoned In: John Maus: We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves


By Ric Leichtung and Emilie Friedlander

John Maus is first and foremost a thinker. A PhD candidate in political theory with degrees from CalArts and The European Graduate School, he makes more references in conversation to philosophers like Hegel, Heidegger, and Marx than to other musicians, and lifted the title of his third album from Badiou‘s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”. Like many great romantic thinkers of the modern era, he lives in a world of travesties, tortured by moral crises and a yearning for emancipation. We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, his debut with Domino-affiliate Ribbon Music, brings us, on the one hand, into a world of apocalyptic “dead zones” and imprisonment, of never-ending rain and dead bodies discarded in the gutter. On the other, it is brimming with optimism and calls for change, shot through with liberation anthems with titles like “Quantum Leap,” “We Can Breakthrough,” and “Believer.” While seductively hopeful on the surface level, mantras like “Keep pushing on… Pushing on…” and “We can breakthrough this!” are hackneyed and cliché, rendering the sentiment behind them not only impotent and pathetic, but also tragic. His undeniably cheesy choruses channel limp pop songs and poorly written blockbusters; lyrics and melodies alike are chained to the language of a world from which he is trying to break free.

But Maus’ songs are more than illustrations of his political and philosophical agenda; they sound good, too. He serves pop to audiences in an accessible, synth-revivalist fashion, without falling back on the potentially alienating experimental music clichés that one might expect from such an ideologically charged album. Whether he is conscious of it or not, John Maus appears alongside Ariel Pink at the forefront of a militantly low-fidelity, retro-centric practice that is rapidly becoming one the most popular musical languages in our millennial counterculture; we’ve called it hypnagogic pop for the lack of a better term, but its true identity has probably yet to be fully realized. While his work with timbre and texture is reminiscent of the Blitz Kids‘ new romanticism, he takes a good majority of his cues from Medieval modes and Baroque counterpoint, evoking anything from the divine transcendence of Bach’s divine sewing machine to the freshness of note combinations that have gone hundreds of years unheard. His songs are harmonically vertical and rigidly adheres to predefined song structure, which is the complete opposite approach of his leading contemporaries like Pink, Puro Instinct, and James Ferraro, whose work is compositionally horizontal and guided by the ever abstract notion of “vibe.”

At the end of the day, the album would fall seriously short without a harmonious synthesis of both his political and pop musings. Cerebral listeners will revel in the album’s enigmatic ideology and structured, theory-based compositions, while casual indie rock consumers will be wooed by its lush sense of harmony and chic ’80s sheen. Perhaps its most significant accomplishment will be to cause people from each end to dip their toes into the opposite pool, and in this, We Must Become… presents the perfect recipe for an excellent gateway album. While we doubt it’s his goal, it’s taken years of studying across multiple mediums for Maus to create an album with the potential to be embraced on such a large level. And whether he wants to or not, Maus could become an antihero for the masses.

John Maus: We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is available now from Domino and Upset The Rhythm

via Altered Zones