With Before Today, John Maus’ musical brother-in-arms Ariel Pink traded out warped cassette tapes and percussive sounds made with his mouth for hi-fi mastering at Abbey Road Studios and a clean (but still warm) move into smoother territories. The success of that album (commercially, aesthetically) surely gave Maus the itch to play with his own formula. His last record Love Is Real was by turns funky and dramatic, but it suffered from lack of focus and technical limitations. How would this new album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, change up the equation, if at all?
Opener “Streetlight” comes through the speakers with a glistening electronic trill, intimating that Maus isn’t making records the way he has. And then the big bass line comes in—one of Maus’ trademarks is the omnipresence of a smart, funky bottom end, and vocals half-hidden in reverb. So while we’re seeing new territory, we’re also not so far removed from Love Is Real to not recognize what we’re hearing. In fact, as the album progresses it becomes increasingly clear that this is Maus recording the way he’s become accustomed to—with better electronics, maybe, but there’s no expert production or mixing happening behind the scenes.
Love Is Real was either a joy or a chore depending not on the way it sounded, but on the strength of the songwriting. Same here. “Streetlight” is a great opener, and the album progresses nicely with “…And The Rain” and “Quantum Leap,” which are surefooted numbers that you won’t mind burrowing into again and again. “Hey Moon,” the fourth track, is a nice surprise. A duet with Molly Nilsson, this is a song she wrote and released three years ago, and it’s a lovely and sentimental ballad that fits gamely into the mood Maus is trying to establish on this album. Nilsson’s vocals are a nice surprise here.
We’re given a few other tracks in the same vein as the opener, like “Head For The Country”, before Maus indulges in his more experimental tendencies. It’s probably part of what makes him an interesting listen in the first place, but the man’s inability to leave well enough alone can be frustrating. You feel he’s pushing buttons with the otherwise serviceable “Cop Killer” with lyrics so blunt and literal that they can’t possibly be literal: “Cop killer/Let’s kill the cops tonight/Cop Killer/Kill every cop in sight.”
“Matter of Fact” combines bad lyricism with the fugue-sounding style of composition he toyed with on Love Is Real to make one of the more grating tracks in his oeuvre. “Pussy is not a matter of fact,” he sings, while the electronics twitch on top of his voice. At just over two minutes, it’s not unbearable, but it’s this sort of odd detour that you wish had stayed on the cutting room floor.
He brings it all back home at the end with “Believer,” a lush and wonderful track that he—in typical sneaky fashion—leaves for the very end. It’s a killer climax. “Believer” is the kind of song that would sound amazing both as a quietly strummed acoustic piece or as a symphonic opus. And Maus finds his place here within the fabric of gorgeous noise held up by that bass, which anchors the more ephemeral melodies and textures. Like the rest of his discography, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves is at turns surprising, invigorating, and occasionally messy. Maus makes some bold steps here, but he’s yet to shed some of the habits that tend to make his music feel unwieldy.