Any random ears placed in the path of a John Maus song will say one thing for certain: “This sounds like the ’80s.” In countless interviews, Maus tries to talk himself and his listeners out of this, and that’s just the way he is. He’s a tireless intellectual, never satiated with a simple one-two answer about anything. Each item much be discussed to exhaustion, torn apart and pieced back together. It seems almost ironic at times, especially when listening to his new album Screen Memories because many of his songs are so simple that they are nearly mantras, simple statements and riffs repeated ad nauseam. It’s disorienting and congealing at the same time, so it’s very ‘John Maus’, as in it is simple but oh so complicated.
The opening track, “The Combine”, is a perfect example of this. A John Carpenter-esque, icy synth explodes and decays while some drums crack in the back. That all repeats for a while until Maus decides to sing, but all he says is “I see the combine coming.” Had that phrase been part of a larger whole, it wouldn’t stand out so much, but as it is the only thing to analyze, it causes the listener to dig deep, think more. Is he literal? No. Is he telling us the end is near? Yes. Are the shrieky tones of the synth making this simple statement of finality seep into your bones and give you the shivers? Yes, yes they are.
And that seems to the point of the album: Tone. As a lyrical piece, it is barely there. Each song has the bare minimum of words attached. “Pets”, for example, repeats the phrase, “Your pets are gonna die” ten times and then adds some incoherent babbling to round out the ending. “Touchdown” is another example. It’s a dark, brooding track (just like all the rest) that repeats the phrase “Go for the touchdown” a bunch then babbles something about “Super Bowl” and “Overdrive”. It’s subtle, subversion by way of tone. By repeating such a cliché phrase ad nauseam with such a chilling background, where else is the mind to go but to the depths of evil? Most of the album repeats this trick to similar and mostly successful results.
Analyzing the title of the album can open some doors of understanding to the listener. A screen memory can be a few things. One, it can refer to a memory of a film, as the album art suggests. That makes sense, as Maus seems infatuated with the sound of the film composers of his childhood. A screen memory is also a psychology term that refers to a masking of a traumatic memory with a pleasant memory. Is Maus using this nostalgic sound to cover up his trauma? Is he just playing with our minds? I posit that it’s the latter. Maus is not here to give us answers. He’s here to mull it over, complicate it, ruin any possibility of a didactic truth. Thanks, John Maus. Now we can’t think straight.