John Maus – Screen Memories
Screen Memories is a triumph of low-key retro-futurism, an album that is proudly out of step with the current state of pop music and all the better for it
After 2011's celebrated We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves and its subsequent tour, John Maus took a break from music to return to academia. He received his doctorate in political philosophy in 2014, then returned home to rural Minnesota to set about making a new album. The result, Screen Memories, is a triumph of low-key retro-futurism, an album that is proudly out of step with the current state of pop music and all the better for it.
The album doubles down on the experimental synths that have long coloured Maus' work. He actually built his own modular synths for this album in an effort to achieve a sound that truly reflects his musical vision. The sleek comfort of the beats demonstrate a much tighter grasp on the overall direction of the album, rather than the blasé punkiness of previous albums. However, in creating a consistent musical palette, the focus has shifted from lyrics to melody, which may be a plus to those who wish to keep their music and their philosophy separate. The highfalutin concepts are not completely absent, but they tend to appear as complementary vignettes, rather than the primary focus of the music.
Brilliant opening track The Combine is skittering, lo-fi apocalyptica at its best, balancing the electronic and the orchestral over a fragment of portended doom. Teenage Witch, however, eschews cryptic allusions in favour of frosty nostalgia and smothers it all under a sparkling veneer of cheeriness.
Fuggy, lo-fi vocals and gleaming synth lines are in constant conflict, creating a lot of pretty songs that sometimes sacrifice their message for pop kicks. An Ariel Pink comparison is never far from a discussion of John Maus – and a few songs here could easily be inserted in Pink's oeuvre (Find Out, Pets) – but by committing to one idea Maus has found a focal point around which to craft his own musical identity.
Listen to: The Combine, Pets, Over Phantom