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John Maus

Exclusive Extract: Heaven Is Real: John Maus And The Truth Of Pop, By Adam Harper

July 2011

Wire contributor Adam Harper will launch his book Heaven Is Real: John Maus And The Truth Of Pop on 27 July 2011. It is the first publication from micro-publishing house Precinct, and looks at language and truth in Maus's pop-music-about-pop-music. More info here.

John Maus is a composer, performer, home-recording artist and philosopher from Minnesota, U.S.A. Born in 1980, he earned fame in independent pop circles with his albums Songs (2006), Love Is Real (2007) and We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves (2011). Maus’s project is a religiously ecstatic musical pilgrimage through Earth to Heaven and Hell, a believer’s quest to reach the quintessence of pop’s emotional and political expressivity, or else discover such a thing merely to be a starry-eyed mirage. For it’s the ambiguity of Maus’s Utopia that arguably makes it so compelling, so provocatively lost somewhere between Heaven and Earth.

The first track on Love Is Real challenges us with the assertion in its title, "Heaven is Real": has Maus brought us to a Heaven that is real, are we basking in the hope-giving glow of a Love that is real? Or do we feel the disillusionment of pop’s quixotic project, the ironic permanence of earthly banality, even a Hell in which the joy of transcendence is hubris, punished, impossible and forever out of reach?

For Maus’s idiom is prosaically handmade, using hissing tapes and less-than-cutting-edge synthesizers; he is one of the pre-eminent ‘lo-fi’ practitioners of our time. His homemade rapture recalls those of the American ‘outsider artists’ who crept out of obscurity in the last decades of the twentieth century – Daniel Johnston, Henry Darger, Charles Ives, Wesley Willis, James Hampton, Hasil Adkins, Achilles Rizzoli. Yet outsiders are not what they once were: Maus is classically trained in music and a PhD-level reader of philosophy, versed in the work of Martin Heidegger and Alain Badiou.

But just as in the almost-freakshows of the outsider artists, whether or not we discover that Heaven (or love, or truth, or togetherness) is real, or whether there is only the kitschy, idiosyncratic and undignified Hell on Earth of all-too-human venture, will be a matter of faith.

In any case, Maus certainly offers listeners a pop that draws a transcendent power from its elegant, well-crafted simplicity. His Romantic pop of shimmering synths undeniably brings out all the sweetness of a single chord progression, the momentum of an ostinato and the immediacy of a lyrical fragment, all entirely within the nobly ‘savage’, humanising and refreshingly personal context of home-recorded composition.

Like those of his occasional collaborator and friend of over a decade Ariel Pink, and to a certain extent those of Pink’s mentor R. Stevie Moore, Maus’s songs seem to dabble in what might traditionally be deemed to be kitsch and naïveté in the context of nostalgia, but such qualities aren’t merely there for shallow thrills or cheap shots. Maus, Pink, Moore and an increasing number of like-minded musical auteurs are showing us ‘pop about pop’: a critical commentary on the mediation between personal and popular aesthetics for which the message is (in) the medium. Thus they collapse the sacred triptych of Earth, Heaven and Hell, demonstrating they actually coexist simultaneously.

The metapop of Maus and Pink is constantly likened to the sounds of previous artists by music critics, a technique which doesn’t do justice to their project, and their work is invariably described as ‘nostalgic’. Notions of nostalgia, pastiche and reference have dominated writing on recent trends in musical aesthetics, frequently in a mood of frustration, and games of association have become particularly popular. Such a way of imagining and approaching new music only prescribes and ossifies listening. Besides, a diagnosis of ‘nostalgia’ in art is often a futurist opinion, only conceivable from the viewpoint of an aesthetic agenda built around an imperative toward the wholly new.

Any partial return to or resonance of old methods – that is, an established Earth from which to begin one’s journey – is only ‘backward-looking’ in the eyes of a doctrine that demands a progress predicated upon the constant invention of new (i.e. believed to be radically unfamiliar) methods. An alternative, more finely tuned conception of progress sees the interaction of past and present in the formulation of increasingly subtle artistic results in a favourable light, as enriching and fertilising the present with the de- (and re-) familiarisation of the past.

Such balance between the ‘old/familiar’ and the ‘new/unfamiliar’ is of course an example of the Earth vs Utopia aesthetic described above. Though John Maus’s musical idiom can only occasionally be reduced to pastiche, a major component of his utopian vision of Heaven is its resonance with eighties synth pop and film/television soundtracks.

To twentieth-century ears, this era’s pure and confidently expressed sentimentality often reappears as kitsch, or is appreciated with a degree of irony. Treating this or any subject matter with lo-fi framing effects (i.e. incorporating, as Maus does, tape hiss, crackly, over-saturated volumes, attenuated high frequencies and various other ‘unprofessional’ symptoms, or procedures such as collage) can sanitise these sentiments by coating them in a layer of irony that manifests either within the work or, ultimately, as a result of its historical context.

These effects remind us that we and the artist ‘know’ the music being framed to be anachronistic and aesthetically invalid, thus saving us from the bad taste of what has rotted and been discarded. This irony can be by turns tragic, melancholic, playful, bitter, disturbing or satirical – all shades that seem to appear in Maus’s work.

Yet even the most icy-hearted and nihilistic listeners would find it difficult to resist being seduced on some level by the various Heavens Maus paints, to whatever extent they’re understood ironically or not. One might conclude that Heaven is as real as its image and its effect on reality, both of which can certainly be felt in Maus’s music.

The final truth is that there is no single way of appreciating any art, and Maus demonstrates this truth for any and every listener by artfully rendering his music as aesthetically ambiguous and yet undeniably genuine.

Book launch at London X Marks The Bökship, 27 July, 7pm. John Maus was interviewed by Joseph Stannard in The Wire 329.

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