Music Reviews
Screen Memories

John Maus Screen Memories

(Ribbon Music) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Where has John Maus been hiding for the majority of this decade? Having been absent from making any music for over six years, the synth-pop virtuoso spent that time on the outskirts of rural Minnesota building a modular synthesizer from scratch. Though Maus has gone to undermine that taxing exercise, that’s not to say that his latest, Screen Memories, benefits from the trial and error that is central to his experimental ethic.

Screen Memories carries a sinister tone from the start with The Combine, given how Maus’s brooding vocal presence casts a dour warning. It’s a hauntingly good time, a reminder of how Maus has always relied on rhythm to sharply contrast the temporal nature of human life. He’s defiant throughout, even at his most plainspoken, declaring himself as a “phantom over the battlefield” on the fumblingly-tiled Over Phantom. These laconic observations seem futile at first, but they play well with his commanding stage presence, which explains why his compulsive pop hooks can contribute to one's addictive thinking patterns.

Though similar in approach, Screen Memories does have a brighter sound compared to 2011’s more granular We Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. Luminous synths bounce around a siphoned bass throb on Touchdown, an anti-anthem on resilience that sounds as if Cluster wrote the theme song for a television crime drama. On Decide Decide, he comically croons like a faux-R&B impersonator within a celestial background as he acquires some perspective. Even at his most distressed, like in the cheeky power pop of Find Out, Maus raises his fist high into the air even if most of the album has a darker and more cynical edge.

Still, the rational side of Maus is what informs his newfound political urges. The bouncy, darkwave-laced urgency of The People Are Missing denounces growing social divide with hardly a word. These mantric cries have always defined Maus’s work, especially when he’s trying to distinguish sense from nonsense - the Devo-inspired Pets offers an unnerving reality check that may hit too close to home to those who are emotionally attached to their pets (“Your pets are going to die”), as he repeats it with no condolence until he turns the focus over to all of us at large (“Let this be the time of the end, standing between time and its end.”) It’s an unfortunate reminder of how Maus can sometimes lose himself into his own abstract ideas.

That’s not to say that Screen Memories takes someone as scholarly as John Maus to interpret. In fact, it’s far from it. He propels the masses into an apocalyptic party with simple and inviting gestures, even if behind the songs lays an exhaustive perfectionist who’s fully dedicated to his craft. That exhaustion does catch up with Maus as the quality of the songwriting loses its luster, especially during its second half, but his sharply quizzical thoughts do cohere into an involving whole. His contagious motivation is rare to find, and, even more so, impossible to ignore.