#8 John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
In the interview, Maus describes this album's title as a bit of a "pretentious mouthful". He took it from material by the philosopher Alain Badiou whose work, from my limited wikipedia-derived understanding of it (it's a heck of a wikipedia page however), appears to operate around belief in eternal truths that are mostly indiscernible, yet which reveal themselves to us during brief moments of rupture in, for example, art. It is up to the artist or the philosopher to try to name these truths and make them discernible for the rest of us. I think the important point about the guy, and what sets him apart from other philosophers in the postmodern tradition, is that he believes these truths actually exist and can be crystallized and identified. I'm wary to go on any further here, because my grasp on this stuff is slippery and undergraduate. I could be wrong already. So we'll step out of philosophy 101 and look to Maus and his cool album. Hopefully in a moment you'll see why the bit of theoretical context is important in this case.
Phew. Okay. I've just wiped a giant clot of sweat from my crinkly forehead.
Pretentious mouthful or not, I like the album's title and what it implies. As for the cover image of a lighthouse beam searching the sky over a storm? I adore that shit. It's clearly a metaphor for the self and a key to what Maus is all about. From his lyrics, his music, and from his dense interviews, his art strikes me as being about vigilant self-searching and the need to address the fact that most of what comes out of our mouths, our instruments, our paintbrushes, etc, is in fact bullshit. He wants people to pause and think about what is actually true, to cut the baloney out. I'm laughing now, wondering how this blog, with all its meandering bullshit, would fare in the world of Maus? Would he find anything of merit here? Probably not. Anyway, that's one aspect of what he does.
Another aspect of what he's doing, and something that connects him to his contemporaries Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, is his highlighting a need to apply a stringent critical filter to popular culture, and by implication, to take popular culture seriously. Like it or lump it this is the art of our time, he seems to say. And in different ways all three of these lads believe there is stuff of tremendous value in popular culture. In other words, the terminator walking out of the fire in James Cameron's film could be a beautiful meaningful image analogous to renaissance art, to name one example (Maus picks up on this image in the Quietus interview).
I think I can agree with him. For example, I have felt as moved by the Super Nintendo game Super Metroid as I have by certain works of high art or high literature that have appealed to me in my life. The music of that game, the eerie stillness and fascinating physical aesthetics of the environment created in it, the lonely atmospheres, and the strikingly beautiful central image of the sprite forever running, strikes me as the real thing - genuine art.
So like James Ferraro's, Maus's lyrics pull odd images and metaphors from popular culture and ask us to reevaluate them. Ice-T's famous "Cop Killer" is a very important image to him and he wants us to appreciate the metaphorical possibilities in it. Hulk Hogan emerges as a later symbol, and Jackie Chan too. "I'm a believer" Maus sings about them, and listening to him I think about one of the only things by Roland Barthes I've ever read where he treats the entertainment spectacle of wrestling in very serious elevated terms. These things, says Maus, are art. And we need to find a critical language analogous to them. Whether you agree with all this or not is up to yourself, of course, but how fine it is that a composer is out there grappling with things like this and, moreover, trying, really trying, to make it accessible. And that's where the music comes in.
The music on We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is pop of a sort. It's sometimes dark music made on archaic synth equipment (not a million miles from Paddy Kelleher's album at number 13. Paddy, I'm sure, considers Maus an influence). Yet it is pop all the same - pop in that it's catchy, immediate, and not afraid to paint its joy or sadness in broad strokes. These songs are loaded with spiraling earworms. Quantum Leap is so insistently melodic I find myself internally humming it during odd moments far removed from any actual listening. And as for 'Believer', the album's closing statement, well when I listen to that sparkling manifesto I feel like I want it to carry me on its bright journey outwards for a lot longer than four minutes. I think of the lighthouse on the cover as 'Believer' ends, of the possibility of the song as the beacon of light, and then of Maus's uplifting message that culture hasn't gone to shit, that there is in fact plenty all around for us to believe in, if we'd only look, and think, and respond to it in a serious way.
MP3: John Maus-Believer