John Maus is a political philosopher at the University of Hawaii. Does this make his work — disposable synth-pop — any more “meaningful”? Is Maus just a huge OMD fan, or is he attempting to craft some kind of post-ironic commentary on the state of contemporary popular music? Put another way, if some random dude in his bedroom had released We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, would it garner as much attention as it has?
It’s impossible to say for sure, and this contextual framework is only as important as the listener wants it to be. But whether you consider Maus’s music to be academically fulfillment or dressed-down electronic cheese, his latest album exhibits a creative stagnation that tempers any simple pleasures his songs might offer with the worrying realization that he’s run out of ideas.
I mean, how else am I supposed to respond to songs like “Matter of Fact,” which repeats the eloquent lyric “Pussy is not a matter of fact” ad nauseum over the same synth stabs and programmed drumbeats Maus employed on Songs and Love is Real? What’s the point of “Cop Killer,” on which he repeats, “Let’s kill all the cops tonight” with either ironic (and therefore meaningless) detachment, or a laughably misplaced sense of antiestablishment violence? Does Maus’s professorship imbue these otherwise asinine lyrics with some kind of postmodern importance? I’m hard pressed to find the significance in lines like, “This is where a human being finds itself,” heard on “Head for the Country” with all the conviction of a first-year creative writing major.
I can’t help but feel that too many critics give Maus’s inanity a free pass because of his academic credentials. But a philosophy degree does nothing to change the fact that these chord progressions are catchy but trite, or that this is the third time Maus has almost exclusively relied on a reverb-heavy keyboard-drumbeat-bass-vocals combination over the course of a full-length album, or that Ian Curtis could have recorded these same songs thirty years ago on the same Casiotone that Maus employs today. We Must Become often hints at Joy Division’s stylish brand of post-punk ennui, but by treating it as little more than a gimmick, Maus loses the urgency that makes Curtis’s music so endurable.
I think John Maus is a good pop songwriter. I also think he’s a smart guy. That’s what makes We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves so frustrating; it’s nothing special, and nothing we haven’t heard before (from Maus and from other artists). I just don’t think that Professor Maus has acquired the kind of musical cachet necessary to get away with putting out mediocre releases like this. He knows his way around a hook, but it seems he’s got a long way to go before he qualifies for tenure.