Review Summary: Call me a believer.
It’s tempting to compare We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves to one of the worst synth-pop record of all time, Owl City’s All Things Bright And Beautiful, which came out a few weeks ago. John Maus and Owl City leader Adam Young grew up 45 minutes away from each other (Maus in Austin, MN; Young in Owatonna, MN). Both are reclusive loners who once recorded in their houses. Both were influenced by their parents’ ‘80s electro-pop records as well as their own neo-synthpop records. Both abuse analog synthesizers to no end. And both tend to write hazy songs about Jesus and the moon. However, the similarities come to a screeching halt right there. It’s pointless to compare We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves to All Things Bright And Beautiful because while the latter is an unwaveringly saccharine piece of pseudo-philosophical crap, the former stands among the best Eighties-influenced synthpop records since the eighties.
Pitiless Censors’ Eightiesness hits you in the face. The Eighties’ reputation as the most commercial and one-dimensional decade for pop music is not lost on Maus; this is an album that revels in artificiality. The synths are unabashedly cheesy and pushed up against the listener’s ear to create a deceptively one-dimensional effect. Yet Maus manages to spin this into something oddly human. His baritone voice is as cartoonish as that of Baths’ Will Wiesenfeld but has the same range of emotion. He comes across like one of cinema’s great empathic robot characters--at times as malevolent as HAL, at other times as warm and sympathetic as Moon’s GERTY.
In addition to being cheesy, Maus’ lyrics may strike the listener as being somewhat stupid. “Matter of Fact” is a two-minute piece consisting of Maus repeating the phrase “pussy is not matter of fact” in various orders over a staccato synth line. “Cop Killer” has Maus singing about “killing every cop in sight” in his nonthreatening voice, and “Believer” references Hulk Hogan and Jackie Chan for some reason. Yet at the same time, Maus may also be accused of being a drab intellectual--Maus claims this album was inspired by the philosophy of Alain Badiou and that he intended to make a statement about “resistance to the current and increasingly pervasive forms of mass communication.” Yet Maus is no pedant, and pussy is still matter of fact. He is simply extremely good at being intellectual and is entertaining as well as thought provoking--his music isn’t accessible, but it isn’t arch experimentalism, and a Maus show is nothing if not fun.
Maus sees pop music as the best medium for expressing obtuse ideas. Just how deep his philosophical exploration on Pitiless Censors is anyone’s guess, but were Maus any less skilled a pop songsmith, the album would fall apart. Just check out “Keep Pushing On,” which actually could have been a Top 200 hit about thirty years ago (hey, if Soft Cell had hits...) In fact, when you get past Maus’ voice and the wall of synths, these are amazing pop songs. The best song on the album by far is the grand finale “Believer,” which is everything a pop anthem should be. Over a barrage of icy synths, Maus sings of “flashing across the world” in a deadpan voice until he suddenly brings his voice up, shouting “They call me the believer!” as the listener is sent flying into the sonic landscape. It’s invigorating and incredibly beautiful. It also puts just about every other song ever heralded as a “pop anthem,” from “We Are The Champions” to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” to utter ***. This is already a strong candidate for song of the year (sorry, “Yonkers”), and the album would rate highly on the merit of this song alone, not to mention the fact that there are ten other pop gems on here.
Yes, it’s tempting to make comparisons when referring to John Maus. He’s a lo-fi synthpopper like so many “chillwave” artists; he’s a reclusive Minnesotan bedroom artist like Owl City; he’s redefining a retro genre like his pal Ariel Pink; he has an analog synth fetish, like Diamond Rings, Twin Shadow, and other second-rate Eighties revivalists. But Maus is truly in a league of his own. It’s impossible to mistake this music for anything else, and this album completely swallows the music I listed above (with the exception of Ariel Pink). This is not a retro nostalgia piece, nor the work of a scene or genre. This is something new entirely, something that will likely influence many artists in the future, and the best album of 2011 so far. Call me a believer.