I mentioned some criticisms of John Maus' recent album in my year end post, and I would like to clarify and elaborate on them, so as not to be misunderstood. As a preface I would like to say something I mentioned on the mausspace forums, that he who writes, or paints, or composes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom everyone has the right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgment. In essence, no man can justly aspire to honor, but at the hazard of disgrace. Without criticism there would be no progress, nor standards for quality. We must critique those who critique, even (and especially) our idols. This is my attempt at doing that, as I consider John to be one of the most influential people in my life.
The nature of the artist has always been ubiquitously narcissistic. John is obviously a very self- and world- conscious man and also arguably at the same time one of the most ‘selfless’ men I’ve ever met. I am guessing that he realizes this and wants his work to be more than just expression or some form of deification/immortalization vessel for himself, more than just a feeble attempt to say, "admire me, give me recognition, validate my wretched petty existence; tell me I am of value to the earth for my valliant contributions to culture," and I feel this is just one of the reasons for his changes in style we’ve seen take place over his last two albums. I am extrapolating here, so John, forgive me if I’m mistaken.
Although Songs (2006) was technically his first official release, it was actually a compilation of sorts composed of songs from his first two albums, I Want to Live (2003?) and Love Letters from Hell (2004?). In my opinion, these two albums are some of the most genuine and transcendental pieces of art I have ever come across in my 26 years on this planet. They are works of pure unadulterated genius, whose plethoric virtuosity and brilliance are rivaled only by how humble and human they are. They are devoid of the pretentions that generally surround music of such an epical nature, making them very, very unique. In terms of musical composition, they could be compared with and sit along side Mozart, Bach, Wagner, Beethoven, Schubert, and the rest. Moreover, these albums are humorous, the kind of raw humor that arises from the absurdity of the horror of existence. They encompass everything vital about art.
In an age where nearly everything feels contrived and is a revival or throw-back to something that preceded it, John’s first two albums sound bizarrely original. Of course there are influences, as with all art, particularly minimal wave acts such as Section 25, and classical structuring, but they are not directly borrowed from, rather only parts and ideas are borrowed to create true, 'unique' art. All art is intrinsically contriving to some degree, but it’s within the variations of that contrivance which we can discern its ‘originality.’
I feel that John’s live performances could best be compared to a ritual, a séance, or a church sermon. It is a means for both John and his audience to expunge something. Nothing pains me more than to see these drunken idiots dancing around like children, dressed up like fools, making a mockery of John’s true intentions all because they feel they are subscribing to what they feel fits some popular trend. These people should be exiled to some distant island where they can continue with their vapid, sexless orgies. Again, John, if you’re reading this and your intention is to make dance music and I am gravely misinformed, please let me know.
When I first heard Love is Real, I remember downloading a leaked copy on soulseek (I later bought it on vinyl, of course, along with a few more copies as gifts for friends) and being huddled close to my monitor as each individual song finished downloading, and listening – no, devouring, imbibing - eagerly. I was going to like it regardless, but I noticed immediately that something was missing. I was a pizza delivery driver at the time and I listened to it over and over in my car during the weeks (and months) to come. As I mentioned before, the macabre has been substituted for the panglossian. This much was obvious, but there was something else missing and I could not figure out just what it was. But I finally realized what the missing piece was: the realness of genuine suffering, longing, the pain and burden of love. The ‘love’ John seems to have found in Love is Real is an illusory love, an ideal love - not the kind of love found on his first two records – the kind that plagues you, that consumes you, not real love. Beyond that is the departure from poetry towards rhetoric that seemed to have taken place, rhetoric whose purpose seems to be that of sparking social and political awareness. Because rhetoric is a device that is arrived at willingly and consciously, and not a mechanism that is a product of its own accord, a certain element of sincerity is bound to be lost, and that is what is missing in Love in Real and We Must Become.... John's richest, 'realest' work has always been his love and existential songs, because these are the most guileless subjects for any human being, even the most altruistic of us.
Furthermore, the problem with attempting to merge art and politics is that it is useless, futile, ineffectual. John’s music is not going to change anyone’s mind or open anyone’s mind because of the very inaccessibility of his music. If the fucking Beatles couldn’t do it, If U2 couldn’t do it, two of the most colossal music forces the world has ever seen, it surely cannot be done. Educating others is a good thing, a noble thing even, but in John’s case with a fringe audience, it brings to mind the expression ‘preaching to the choir.’
The only way drastic, -significant- change has ever come about is from one of three ways: 01) the separation of those desiring change and exodus into a new land where a new country can be formed, 02) a violent overthrow/rebellion by the people, or 03) a rebuilding after a complete collapse. The first is irrelevant because there is no unclaimed, unoccupied, ‘free’ soil left. The second would be very difficult given the paradigm of the modern world, especially in America where everything is so spread out, and even then what is to say that the new rule and order would not be even more oppressive than than the previous? Throughout history, power and ignorance have almost always been parallel to one another. If you can name me one kind, wise leader of a prominent, prospering civilization, I will gladly paypal you $20. The third method seems to be the only viable option, and that leaves us with no other choice but to sit back and wait and watch the figurative train crash in slow motion.
Getting back to art as kindling for political revolution, not even literature (which I feel is a much better medium for actuating change) has been able to do this, George Orwell’s 1984 being the best example. This is a book that is –mandatory- reading in just about every high school in America. Yet despite being read by nearly every person in our country with a high school diploma, the once cautionary tale is no longer prophecy, but is becoming eerily true as we find ourselves in a vivid dystopian world of our own. Despite being warned, we have been duped, fallen into a cleverly conceived trap, and wonder why things have gone to shit, scratching our heads and being unable to do anything because it is much too late.
Perhaps you could accuse me of being overly pessimistic here, but the fact remains - no artist or group of artists have ever brought an end to tyranny. Art has always served best as a nexus between individuals, a way for us as isolated and simultaneously social creatures to relate to one another and communicate on a deeper level than symbolic language allows, and lastly a way to cling together and share the weight of our burden, the burden of conscious existence and finitude that can be so hard to bear at times.
John, if you are reading this (and I truly hope you are), please take what I've said to heart and feel free to respond to this and I will happily discuss my views further. I consider myself to be one of your biggest fans, and I will support whatever direction you choose to go in, but you at least know where I stand. I consider "Just Wait til Next Year" to be the greatest song ever written. I've had "That Night" haunt me because I could relate to it so, the music and lyrics perfectly encapsulating the heartbreak I was feeling at the time. I would be grateful if you even produced only one more song with such intense passion and sincerity as contained in either of those two songs. If there were more musicians like yourself I wouldn't be having to write this, but sadly you are one of a kind.