After such an awesomely cryptic and baffling title as 2010’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, John Maus’s latest material being dubbed A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material seems a little bit on-the-nose. Maybe not as much as his 2006 album Songs, but there seems to be very little to dissect within the name A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material, little unifying these brightly hued nuggets, little mystery to their arrival to us in the digital age as a packaged commodity. Odd for a man who weaves deep semiotic layers into his music, both physically and discursively, inspiring the kind of obsessive fanbase that might sideline as groupies for Slovenian pop-philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a similarly twitchy and somewhat elusive interview subject known for wild tangents and bold declarations.
With Maus’s home recordings and oft-crude shtick, he appears at first like a lamentable half-breed of outsider artist and nostalgic fetishist. But where nostalgia involves a longing for connection, Maus’s creations stress disconnections, ones that cannot be easily remedied or glossed over. “Give us the beat / We want the fucking beat”, one song on Rarities demands, leading to the response “We don’t have the beat / No one has the beat”, followed by a mocking repeat of the melody in the form of “La la la la la / La la, La la.” It’s as close as Maus comes to a sneer. For all his implicit ironies, Maus is never aggressive or mean, never preachy or superior.
The packaging of Rarities features a cover image of a stark black background with a white circle in the middle, nearly perfectly round save for a bumpy blemish protruding in the lower right-hand corner. The blotch is easily notable given the scarcity of its surroundings, but its intention is shielded from view. Is its inclusion happenstance or printing irregularity or careful tarnishing?
On one level, one could see this imperfection as the visual signifier of the rarity album itself, wherein these curious stillborn numbers miscarried on their way to Maus-terpieces like Pitiless Censors for one reason or another. Too irrevocably damaged to live, too charmingly aberrant to die, many of these presumed Maus droppings wound up being the man’s most celebrated songs online.
Any discussion of Maus’s music itself is inevitably going to be drawn back to this pockmark too. His sacral documents of pop purity are surrounded by fuzz, possessed by retreat, marred from critical consensus by dumb jokes, and resigned to obscurity by the rejection of the fundamental tenets of all the genres he dabbles in — synthpop, indie, AOR, baroque fugues, and the experimental “H”-pop axis (hypnagogic/hauntology). This seeming self-sabotage nearly guarantees rejection in an age where the backlash is waiting at the shore before the tide even hits.
That itty bitty blight might even be an appropriate stand-in for Maus himself, a man who often introduces himself by way of apology. A Ph.D candidate studying political theory and philosophy who is not afraid to invoke Badiou in explicating a song lyric or an aesthetic choice, Maus is a student of criticism (and thus self-criticism) and not immune to moderating his own built-in auto-critiques. Take the Rarities song “Big Dumb Man” with its foreboding, plodding bass cues drawing out his mocking voice, commenting on his own simplistic hectoring (“Big dumb man cannot convey any emotion/ Big dumb man cannot convey any impression outside of pretension”) while participating in it nonetheless. But this is not just Maus eating his own tail. “Big Dumb Man” is a song against self-awareness, wishing it could let go of its signifiers and move beyond it to the real.
Author Adam Harper, who wrote a short eBook about Maus, uses the ontology of the real in Love is Real”/”Heaven is Real” to illustrate how Maus’s music, calculated though it may be, indeed strives to be “real”, but this “real” contains several realities at any given time (the utopian ideal of pop, the hellish truth, the liminal spaces between). Harper calls this “pop about pop: a critical commentary on the mediation between personal and popular aesthetics for which the message is (in) the medium.” Unlike traditional notions of meta-pop, Maus’s songs do not scream for an awareness of themselves as an artificial product. Instead, they promote further mystification, wandering deeper within the wormhole of simulacra and simulacrum.
So, the pimple on the perfect circle may not just be telling us that Maus is too much of a creep to be a savior or too permanently intellectual to realize his populist potential, but also that we’ll never know exactly what it is that makes Maus’s divine melodies so transfixing and yet sound so very off. His occasional religious and spiritual symbolism often comes off less like missionary work than an attempt to translate the mysteries associated with belief (“they call me the believer”) and faith into a pop idiom fraught with hipster cynicism and recursive impulses.
Despite deep strands of irony and self-awareness, Maus’s genre-hopping into the murky, oft-treacly realm of new age on a song like “I Don’t Eat Human Beings”, a song that could launch a neo-Balearic mixtape or soundtrack a Club Med ad equally, doesn’t come off as shallow or trite. The song’s title seems to poise it as an anti-cannibalism PSA, which is not exactly a bold stance, but then you realize that Maus’s song is essentially a cannibalization in itself, trainspotting in unfamiliar terrain to demonstrate a bold execution in which a luxuriant sound otherwise thought to be ideologically flatlined can contain its own contradictions. Besides the title verse, the other words in the song state “He’s so far away from love / So close and so far away”, and, mirroring the near-perfect/utterly distorted cover image blemish, Maus sounds certain that both can simultaneously be true.
Here lies paradox pop, high-minded modernism informed by the simplistic fallacy of Epimenides. Rarities is full of these kind of quasi-contradictory declarations (“I will hold her in my arms / Again and Again and Again / For the first time”, “I still love the girl from Bennington / Even though I’ll never see her eyes / I love those fucking eyes /Those eyes won’t leave my mind”).
Unlike his former Haunted Graffiti compatriot and mentor Ariel Pink, who claims to have embraced lo-fi out of convenience and economics, it doesn’t seem feasible that Maus hasn’t thought intimately about his choice of medium because Maus thinks about everything. This is what makes writing about him so difficult. Even with a crash course in Lacan or autodidact familiarity with the Medieval musical notion of counterpoint, one’s interpretation of a given song is bound to fail when strewn alongside Maus’s own readings. Admittedly, his application of theory is often post hoc ergo propter hoc, but part of the reason he ascribes his songs otherworldly sheets of reverb and production sheen, not to mention punctual, totemic, and stripped lyrics, is that they form a broad base to run ideas through. Therefore, the possibility of him slapping together a touring band and demasking his sound to go pop-slick like the Pink of Before Today is slim to none. Maus is enamored of making conscious choices with subconscious implications.
He achieves this not only through lyrical obfuscation but through sonic cloaking. The scintillation of the major chord peaks on “My Hatred Is Magnificent” could be a convincing case for satanic spiritualism (alternating lyric — “my hatred is mellifluent”– indeed). “Angel of the Night”, on the other hand, builds with such power and emotion that it threatens to become overwhelming, only to dissolve with an ebb that makes one think that perhaps it was just a passing ghost, the beautiful forlorn hark of a desperate man two subway cars down.
A far better fit for 4AD than Pink, Maus’s music glimmers with such heat that it can often feel like it’s giving off an aura. Harper has rightly stated that Maus’s “shimmering synths undeniably [bring] out all the sweetness of a single chord progression, the momentum of an ostinato and the immediacy of a lyrical fragment”. “The Law” contains a gorgeous arpeggio rendered as demonstration sound, absent humanity but lifted by calming warm strings that make their tender chords a cold comfort to accompany the harsh determinism of a lyric like “You’ve got to pay the price for who you are / Yeah, that’s law.”
If one were to doubt that Maus is a dedicated eccentric and not just a recondite slacker apologist, they need only look at the oldest song on Rarities, “Fish With Broken Dreams”, which sounds like it was recorded by a completely different artist. Absent the Muppet Ian Curtis voice, cheap keyboards, and faux disinterest in production values, Maus crafts a brilliantly elliptical baroque prog piece which bends and twists effortlessly into a precise paragon of lapidary glory. He made this crisp cut in 1999, which must mean that he planned this reverse-trajectory into fuzz and smeared sound, right?
Yet, Rarities are all the pieces that didn’t fit. And furthermore, they’re mostly fantastic. Maybe the “real” of pop happens whether you plan it or not. Maybe the unintentional ink blotch is exactly the ingredient that makes the picture complete, that distinguishes it from being just another perfect circle. Maybe everything Maus is telling us is a lie, but he’s telling us that it’s a lie and so maybe he’s wrong… and perhaps pop and art are the only things that are real because these kinds of contradictions don’t in any way diminish each other.