In contrast to many other areas of arts and culture that have become trapped in a momentary stasis by the COVID-19 outbreak this year has seen a prolific of new musical releases, perhaps due to the fact that much of the music composed in the present can be pieced together with relatively few individuals being involved at a particular time.
Despite this I’ve been somewhat reticent in finding new records to listen to, the often dislocating and disorientating nature of the present moment where consensus seems to form with rapid speed and then dissolve almost as quickly has lead me to a situation where finding refuge in established previously established habits, media and memorabilia has become somewhat of a reluctant trend.
However one area where I’ve somewhat diverged from this has been a newfound fascination with the work of John Maus which in somewhat has emancipated a slew of previously repressed thoughts which previously I hadn’t quite managed to give voice to. Whilst the album I’ve been most focused on has been his 2006 release Songs, and as such my reflections are predominantly based on the themes contained within that album I have been listening to material that ranges across his discography which has been similarly influential.
Written over the course of around five years during a particularly tumultuous time in the musicians life when he moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles to attend college and met Ariel Pink. Songs slides between pitch-black humor, troubled ruminations and off-kilter angst. The b-movie synths of Opening set the seen for a steady stream of skewed goth-pop, which serves as a musical backdrop for Maus’s wry, deadpan lyrics which touch on everything from sexual trysts with members of the Beatles, to incontinent grandmothers.
However buried amidst these bleakly comedic gems are references to phenomena that strike at a chord that seems considerably closer to home. On Of North of North Stars, Maus’s palpable contempt for sunny city life and heartsick homesickness and angst ridden self-loathing comes across clearly “Oh, how I miss the snow, And in the city that I hate” he moodily intones over a stripped back slow paced post-punk accompaniment. Similarly on the eerie acoustic ballad Last Night Maus’s echoing baritone mournfully reminisces on an ill-fated romantic entanglement. Meanwhile on Real Bad Job Maus drolly remarks on the every day frustrations of making ends meet, particularly given the inevitable encroachment on the time needed for artistic expression or even just genuinely self-directed enjoyment.
The primary appeal of Maus’s music, for me, is not so much the ever present pessimism but his manner of dealing with it, his eschewing of what could be a straight forward sincerity in favor of a wry baritone flecked irony might seem in many ways reflective of a time where a more direct method of reveling in ones emotion seems almost contrived or perhaps to borrow from everyday internet parlance cringeworthy. I’d suggest, however that, rather than being simply another reflection of plastic postmodern pastiche, perhaps another way of interpreting Maus’s approach is that it’s less a deft avoidance of the, often painful emotions involved in mental self-examination, but perhaps another way of acknowledging their wounding nature.
As such confronting them with humor is perhaps less then a way of avoiding these sentiments but rather a way of ameliorating them and learning to live with them. Perhaps, this is why I feel his music has such a particular bearing on our current situation, what we’re frequently being called upon to accept as a “new normal” and how exactly we come to terms with it and what perhaps a little macabre humor and wry wit, rather than the usual “stiff upper lip” and unfeeling repression can offer us.