Available on: Ribbon LP
Retrospectives take different tacks. Some, like John Fahey’s Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You, hone in on a particular window of a career. Others are sweeping retrospective surveys, whooshing from salad days through to late style. Ribbon’s new John Maus compilation A Collection Of Rarities And Unreleased Material, however, is puzzling. No temporal through-line here: the sequencing flits with impunity between recent offcuts (2010’s ‘Castles In The Grave’ and ‘Angel Of The Night’) and long-forgotten teenage juvenilia.
Perhaps more pertinently, it’s difficult to trace any sort of historical path through Maus’ sound. When one’s modus operandi is to hoover up and regurgitate three decades of pop flotsam, chronology goes out the window. Some of Maus’ newest work is his most moth-eaten; some of his earliest sketches are his sleekest. So what can A Collection Of Rarities And Unreleased Material possibly tell us?
That Maus knows his way with a lick, essentially. A Collection Of Rarities And Unreleased Material can be erratic, but it’s arguably a better demonstration of the Minnesotan’s superior pop talents than two thirds of his official discography. 2003’s ‘The Law’ is an absolutely adorable hit-in-miniature, a flurry of soft-blush synths and Casio percussion. ‘Bennington’ has tension/release down to an art, the modal strait-laced verse giving way to a weightless chorus. And there’s no touching advance track ‘No Title (Molly)': still hook-heavy, still perfumed, still a conveyor belt of sweet spots. In the case of the latter two songs, the material is better than just about anything on the roughly contemporaneous Love Is Real. You wonder why they didn’t make the cut first time around.
Considering these tracks span eleven years, A Collection… is also a surprisingly coherent compilation. Time passes, but Maus’ tics persist. On his three full-lengths, Maus is a peddler of melodrama: cop killers, maniacs and misanthropes wield crucifixes and practise devilry. So it is with pieces like ‘Mental Breakdown’, ‘The Fear’ and, amusingly enough, ‘I Don’t Eat Human Beings’. Maus’ voice – a stoopid mock-baritone, heavily treated with echo and reverb, sometimes beyond recognition – is also as ambiguous a tool as ever. It’s opaque, warped, gelatinous, magmatic. Listeners are attuned to reading voices like faces: they act as proofs of the human, and tell us whether a song can be trusted. On ‘All Aboard’ and ‘Rock The Bone’, however, Maus is inscrutiable. It’s one of his most fascinating characteristics, and it’s a major feature of A Collection….
If A Collection… frequently comes over like a strong Maus studio LP, it also, oddly enough, suffers from the same glitches as his albums. Like former bandmate Ariel Pink, Maus habitually feels the need to offset his pop-smarts with facetious interludes and farcical song-stunts. True to form, A Collection… boasts neurotic Karloff knock-off ‘Lost’, basically the bedroom-pop equivalent of The Castle Of Otranto. Similarly, ‘Big Dumb Man’ is the sort of fatuous rum-pum-pum that you might expect from a toddler putting on a show for obliging godparents.
Pink, who’s always worn his whimsy on his sleeve, gets away with this sort of skittishness; in the case of Maus, whose hits have always been much better than skits, it comes over as uneven. Maus’ unhinged live shows basically revolve him throwing a controlled tantrum, and he’d arguably do better to confine his uglier impulses to the stage. Personally, I’m pretty beguiled by Maus The Jester, but it would be misleading to dress up his nonsense as clever or even worthwhile. Maus makes such immediate (and, at times, erogenous) music that these petulant moments sound genuinely out of place. That said, it could be worse: considering this is an odds’n’sods collection, it’s a miracle there aren’t more goofs.
A Collection…, then, is a compilation that plays like a Maus full-length: no more of a primer than the bulk of his work, and, by and large, no less enjoyable. It’s further proof that Maus is a straight-up hitmaker (a few unexpected career twists, and Pink-War-Maus could be the next Holland-Dozier-Holland). It’s also a reminder that Maus fans had better be reconciled to stinky ‘cod-‘ alongside the pop treats; if you want Maus to tug on your heartstrings, you’d better get use to him doing the same to your leg. A Collection… isn’t Maus’ best record – played back to back with We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, it blanches in comparison – but it’s a fine insight into the mind of an inspired Lord Of Misrule.