Like pal Ariel Pink’s Before Today, John Maus’ We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is steeped in ’80’s magic. Unlike Before Today, Maus’ third release is less moody, more consistent in its sense of oddness and intrigue. We Must Become… is also consistent in that nearly every track manages to top what came before it. The awkward disco of opener “Streetlights” sounds like the catchiest song in ages, only to be replaced by the electronic freak-out that introduces “Quantum Leap” slightly less than three minutes later. The album maintains its charm up until the blissful conclusion.
We Must Become… is glutted in synths. At first listen, they dress the songs in too many ridiculous baubles, but each listen uncovers more and more legitimacy. Maus, after all, is quite a ways from your average bonehead rocker. While Maus does not exactly flaunt his political philosophy degree or his PhD (in political science) aspirations, the mood his music creates may lead to a bend in reality; not only are the songs deviantly catchy, they are also dangerously easy to get lost in. “Head for the Country” displays both Maus’ provocative lyrics and the immersive quality of his synthesizers. The song opens with some prime ’80s pop slickness before Maus intones, “This is where human being finds itself in the locker.” Whether the listener chooses to ponder that for the song’s length, or instead gives themselves over to the synthesizers, both poisons leave a satisfying aftertaste. Even more ponderable is the statement repeated throughout “Matter of Fact”, a modern day proverb that is best left for the listener to discover.
Even with so much synth wrapping, We Must Become… still packs its share of naked surprises. “Hey Moon” marks Maus’ first duet, his partner being the song’s writer, Molly Nilsson. If that weren’t enough, the song also sounds closely related to the Magnetic Fields in both charm and lovesickness. “…and the rain”, on the other hand, sounds just as ominous as the title may suggest, while album closer “Believer” rivals Pink’s “Round and Round” in terms of uplift.
But We Must Become… waits to deliver its heaviest blow until eight songs in. A waltz rhythm and an onslaught of archaic synths drug the listener, Maus’ doomy monotone delivers the punch. “Cop killer / Let’s kill the cops tonight / Kill them / Cop killer / Kill every cop in sight” goes the aptly titled “Cop Killer”. Despite all its darkness its potency is hypnotic; but beyond that it is brilliant, less political than the song of the same name by Ice-T’s controversial Body Count, and more a requiem for that song’s aftermath.
To draw an Ariel Pink comparison yet again, as Before Today provided a breakthrough for Pink last year, We Must Become… could very well do the same for Maus. The songs are clearly strong enough, and the ongoing ’80’s revival trend shows few signs of stopping. Maus may not be tempermental enough to ascend to Pink’s state of indie popularity, but if he at least makes a showing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, that alone will confirm that real artists can still get their much-deserved prime time.