It was either Soren Kierkegaard or Billy Joel (I forget which) who observed “There’s a new band in town but you can’t get the sound from a story in a magazine (aimed at your average teen).” It is tempting to consider the metapop produced by John Maus as merely the extension of a philosophical premise originated by Ariel Pink and R. Stevie Moore, and elaborated by Maus and the music critic Adam Warner. Certainly, in a world where commerce can re-package past pop culture as comfortable nostalgia and sell it by the Stranger Things-themed Halloween-bucket load, there is cultural value and political agency in making a record that is more 80’s synth pop than any 80’s synth pop and so circumventing nostalgia to become as real as the original. But you can’t dance to philosophy (except maybe the early Hegel records – before he changed drummers and went all Prog) and you can dance to this.
Maus’ gravelly Andrew Eldritch tones radiate and fade over the weighty, glistening modular synth arpeggios on the first song ‘The Combine’ which is powered by a crisp yet heavy drum-sound the likes of which the ’80s could but sweetly dream. If rhythm is the ultimate arbiter of good and bad in popular music then this has, in era-appropriate terms, a deeply impressive groove. Via some artful sequencing the album moves into ‘Teenage Witch’ which carries forward the same modular synth tonal qualities and riff pattern but morphs through the octave leaping and reverb-saturated vocal into a genuine pop artefact which – in classic 45rpm single fashion – lasts barely over two minutes. Though it has echoes of an Oakey/Moroder collaboration in the crooning style and ostinato bass, there is no pastiche here, no knowing wink or nod, if there is irony it is far from simple and perhaps only in the listener, not the song.
‘Sensitive Recollections’ is closer to the more accessible and popular tracks of Maus’ 2011 album We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves and is blessed with a pleasing modal melody suited to its religious overtones. It contrasts with the frosty synth lines of the shoulder-twisting ‘Touchdown’ and the breathy delay vocals of ’Decide Decide’ through which Maus builds acoustic layers that deceptively shift the focus from the strict pop format into a more unsettling, indeterminate place. The pinnacle of this is ‘Edge of Forever’ which opens with a square shouldered bass, more modular washes and an echoless kick and snare pattern but flows past its Casio handclaps into an interlocking fugue which is cropped short by the album’s pop aesthetic – leaving the resolution tantalisingly out reach.
Like the clipping of the quasi-duel of abrasive direct-injection guitars that closes ‘Find Out’, these are the, seemingly deliberate, sonic brakes to the momentum of the album’s overall aural sheen. Operating successfully and knowingly within a designated format but constructed from authentic materials, this is music of significantly realised ambition.