There are two musicians named John Maus: one born in 1943, the other sometime around 1980. The elder John Maus is remembered, though not widely, as John Walker, one-third of the Walker Brothers, a simulated British boy band from the 1960s that—as their AllMusic.com page observes in dry, encyclopedic prose—wasn’t British, whose members weren’t brothers, and none of whom were named Walker. The Walker Brothers produced little memorable music as a unit, but they did launch the career of Scott Walker (born Scott Engel), who would reinvent himself as a shamanistic figure in the field of experimental rock, cutting purgatorial abstractions like Tilt and The Drift to critical acclaim.
The younger John Maus is really named John Maus, and he sings, or tries to, in a distended baritone that’s reminiscent of Scott Walker’s singing at its least listenable. Maus’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is engineered for minimal accessibility and maximum pretension; if you’ve heard even 30 seconds of this album, then you know he isn’t looking to make his name in the music industry. In fact, he and I share the same vocation: We’re both graduate students of political philosophy (Maus studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa), a sub-niche of academia that offers relatively little in the way of career prospects even to those who finish their degrees at reputable institutions. Then again, if I was being funded to read philosophy in Hawaii while tooling around with antique synthesizers, I suppose I could be fairly content with my lot, no matter how closely my life started to resemble a music critic’s rewriting of Borges.
I actually managed to track down some of Maus’s philosophical writings online. They’re quite bad, reading like a parody of post-structuralist social theory; they make frequent citations to French thinkers who were never taken especially seriously and no longer have even the advantage of being fashionable. The music on We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves isn’t much better. If you’re familiar with Maus’s previous solo efforts, that won’t surprise you; if you know him only as a contributor (keyboardist, to be exact) to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and Panda Bear, you might find yourself fabricating theories about Kaufmanesque performance artistry or, less conspiratorially, well-connected jackassery.
The album is filled with garage-sale synths flooded with reverb and nary a hook to be found, sounding, at best, like an unfinished video-game score (“Hey Moon”) and, at worst, like a Human League track played backward in a Walkman taped to the skull of a drowning man (“Head for the Country”). Sometimes the instrumentals approximate a no-budget Disintegration in their misbegotten twinkliness, but no amount of lo-fi shimmer can compensate for the intentional inadequacy of the vocal lines and the utter lack of memorable melodies. The last song on the album is called “Believer,” and it’s miraculously decent (it’s also, I’ll admit, the only Maus song that I had heard before hearing the whole album).
When I find nothing redeeming in 90% of an album’s content I will usually, out of something like sportsmanship, at least entertain the hypothesis that I just didn’t get it. In this case, I can’t bring myself to care. There’s obviously some kind of art-school mindfuckery afoot here, and I suspect that Maus aspires to some meta-theoretical point on the level of “But really, what is music anyway?” And maybe reality is just the hallucination of a five-dimensional computerized intelligence! Generous guy that I am, I’ll concede that We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves does, on some level, constitute music. Really shitty music.