Ribbon Music · October 27, 2017
On Screen Memories, John Maus taps into the American psyche, crafting an enjoyable and engaging ‘80s-revival pop album into a creative statement on the state of our country and what the future may hold.
Unfortunately, however, I find that having high expectations is not always a good thing in approaching music, at least in how I approached the singles. While I wouldn’t say I disliked either of the singles released in advance of the album – ‘The Combine’ and ‘Teenage Witch,’ which respectively occupy spots 1 and 2 on the Screen Memories tracklist — they initially left something to be desired. ‘The Combine’ combines (ha, wordplay) Maus’ signature ‘80s-inspired synth-pop sound and unique baritone voice with ominous lyrics: “I see the combine coming / It’s gonna dust us all to nothing.” On the first few listens, I was kind of disappointed by the song as Maus’ first single in 6 years. His style has barely changed since Pitiless Censors, and while I obviously am intrigued by this sound, I was still somewhat indifferent to the track, before the tracklist to the album was released with ‘The Combine’ positioned as the opener.
In this context, ‘The Combine’ makes perfect sense. Maus sees the combine coming, and as his listeners, we’re going to get the chance to see it as well, through his eyes, over the course of the 12 songs that comprise Screen Memories. It sets the tone for the album, and gives us an idea of what the hell it is we’re supposed to be hearing and what we’re meant to focus on. Similar to Maus’s other work, the entire album features upbeat songs with an uncomfortably edgy undertone. The feeling is comparable to meeting someone aggressively friendly – they’re nice, sure, but you also kind of just want them to leave you alone. Maus’ chipper synth-pop production, combined with his infamously monotone voice, feels like that: Bright on the surface with something darker lurking beneath.
Maus’s lyrics are often pithy, short, and irreverent, often edging into the realm of the absurd. ‘Teenage Witch’ certainly fits that mold, drawing on humorous nonsensicality with a line like, “Want to start a fire, witch? For that icy titty?” This is reminiscent of the same tone employed on 2011’s ‘Matter of Fact,’ where Maus evokes the philosophical term of the same name, which functions as an objective truth in just about the strangest way possible: the only lyric of the song is “Matter of fact, pussy is not a matter of fact.” This is what I’ve always liked about Maus’s music, and so this is fun for me here as well: A weirdly specific meaning packed into strange and seemingly provocative lyrics. Because of this, as well as the way that Maus can sing absolutely ridiculous things with an entirely deadpan delivery, I probably liked ‘Teenage Witch’ the most of the two singles.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Okay, I think you’re reading a little bit too much into a lyric that has the words ‘icy titty’ in it.” And while you’re probably right on that one, this is exactly what Maus wants us to do. As a PhD holder in political philosophy and a former philosophy professor at the University of Hawaii, Maus is absolutely trying to make a statement in his music – bizarre and esoteric as that statement may be. Despite Maus’ clearly academic background, though, he keeps his lyrics simple and easily digestible, packing whatever ideas he wants to be considered into rarely more than a dozen or so lines per song, and often even less.
The album’s third track, ‘Touchdown,’ explores exactly what it seems like it would: scoring a touchdown. Despite sports being generally exciting (to those who are interested, at least), Maus delivers the song with a deep indifference, entirely unimpressed with its subject matter. Similar to the way the album’s happy sound comes with an air of some kind of threat lying beneath, Maus’ lyrics and song placements come with a similar type of incongruity. I wouldn’t have expected a John Maus song to tell me to “go for the touchdown,” especially edged between a song titled ‘Teenage Witch’ and another called ‘Walls of Silence.’ Maus is going to give us that song anyway.
After ‘Touchdown’ is the bulk of the album and where it really starts to come together – the rest of the album bounces around between positive and negative feelings and thoughts, perhaps representing the difficulty in reconciling the parts of our world that scare us with the parts that make things feel worth it. Tracks like ‘Decide Decide’ and ‘Sensitive Recollections’ almost read as romantic; on the former, Maus proclaims, ‘It’s a dream to dream to choose to choose you,’ perhaps in a nod to his recent marriage in September. Conversely, tracks like ‘Find Out’ and ‘Pets’ capture some of the aggression and in-your-face nature that Maus’ live performances are known for, as well the absurd nature of his lyrics. I can’t really imagine an artist other than Maus releasing a song where 90% of the lyrics are “Your pets are gonna die.”
This kind of thematic bouncing around feels fitting for the era we live in — Screen Memories, Maus has said, was written for today’s world. Conceived at Maus’ home in Minnesota in the aftermath of the 2016 election, a time that feels like a never-ending liminal space (it still doesn’t feel real to open up The New York Times app and see Trump’s smug face smiling back), Screen Memories is a collection of thoughts and feelings relevant to Maus in an era that is becoming increasingly confusing to navigate. Maus describes himself politically as “left of left of left of left,” so one might assume he’s feeling lost as well.
Screen Memories ends with ‘Bombs Away,’ a song that adds a concrete narrative to an overall abstract album. My immediate thought on the track on first listen was, “huh, kind of sounds like some of Maus’s old projects with Ariel Pink (particularly, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti)”, and lo and behold, Pink holds a songwriting credit on the song. In a political climate where nuclear war suddenly doesn’t feel so far off, ‘Bombs Away’ as the final song on Screen Memories is fitting, both in today’s world and in the context of Screen Memories’ absurdist outlook. 2017 may be the year from hell, but at least we have the return of John Maus as consolation.