Since his debut in 2006, John Maus has developed a cult following as a synth-obsessed outsider artist with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. April Clare Welsh looks into his fourth album, Screen Memories, and finds the modern gothic master in both nostalgic and apocalyptic mode.
It’s been six years since John Maus released his DIY goth-pop masterpiece We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. In his absence from releasing music, the polyphony-loving postmodernist focused on extracurricular pursuits – doctoral work in political philosophy and building his own modular synths. He’s now returned with Screen Memories, his first on Domino, and is ready to share what he’s learned.
A screen memory is a tolerable memory that is used to unconsciously mask a more distressing one. First coined by Freud in 1899, Maus’s titular hat-tip to the term lends a nostalgic element to the album, while also hinting that there’s something sinister lurking beneath the surface. He may have traded in experimental noise abstractions for the connecting power of pop some years ago, but being John Maus still involves more than one change of clothes. His range is embedded in the album’s filmic sensibility and retro-futurist vignettes that help position him as a kindred spirit of John Carpenter. Flicking through the cinematic canon, from schlocky B-movie (‘Teenage Witch’) and romantic tear-jerker (‘Sensitive Recollections’) to screwball comedy (‘Your Pets’), Maus also confirms a knack for building knife-edge tension that’s fit for any Halloween horror.
But it’s the apocalyptic element of Screen Memories that feels most ripe for analysis. In an interview with Vulture, Maus expounds his vision, alluding to “the too heavy thing,” while obtusely remarking: “That’s the end, when the Kardashians and Lady Gaga are crying in their dens for the rocks to hide them from the face of the most High.” Album opener ‘The Combine’ – the best, if not only, song about a combine harvester since The Wurzels – literally heralds the machine-powered end of days with the line “It’s going to dust us all to nothing, man / I see the combine coming,” while ‘Over Phantom’ sees Maus transform into “the phantom over the battlefield.”
Elsewhere, ‘The Edge Of Forever’ and ‘The People Are Missing’ generate bleakness and panic in namesake alone, while on ‘Bombs Away’, Maus asks: “Gone too long to leave the lights on / Stayed too long to be asked back / I’ve got to ask you one thing / Do you want to feel electric? / Cause I feels it’s time it’s the only way.” It is, however, missing a deeper reach into the dark void. It begs for the chop and screwed vocals of Pitiless tracks ‘Time To Die’ and ‘Real Bad Job’; it could use lyrics that pack an even more gut-wrenching punch.
Screen Memories doesn’t eclipse the perfection of Pitiless Censors, but it still feels true to its creator. This new album sees the goofy harbinger of doom settle confidently into his fan-appointed hero role, which is handy, because as one YouTube commenter writes, it’s landed “just in time for the end of the world.”
April Clare Welsh is a news writer at FACT. She is on Twitter.