Lost Chords and Serenades Divine #6 by Stephen McClurg
John Maus: Screen Memories (2017)
The less music is a language sui generis to them, the more does it become established as such a receptacle. The autonomy of music is replaced by a mere socio-psychological function. Music today is largely a social cement. […]
Individuals of the rhythmically obedient type are mainly found among the youth—the so-called radio generation. They are most susceptible to a process of masochistic adjustment to authoritarian collectivism. The type is not restricted to any one political attitude. The adjustment to anthropophagous collectivism is found as often among left-wing political groups as among right-wing groups. Indeed, both overlap: repression and crowd mindedness overtake the followers of both trends. The psychologies tend to meet despite the surface distinctions in political attitudes.
—Theodor W. Adorno, “On Popular Music”
It’s rare that I find new music on the radio, and I haven’t seen MTV on purpose this century, though when I grew up these were still the places that allowed one to hear new music. I used to look through my local library’s music section, but then I moved and my current library has no music. I look through local record stores when I get a chance, hear about music through word-of-mouth, or dig digitally the way I used to comb through dusty boxes. This is how I came across John Maus’s Screen Memories, which I listened to because I liked the cover art, especially that staticky old TV.
I had never heard of John Maus, and when I found out he has a political philosophy doctorate, I was intrigued: that doesn’t seem like the norm for rock and pop musicians. He also built all the synths used on this record. This record and subsequent tours will also debut his backing band. Previously, he had presented his music karaoke-style. His live persona is part Ian Curtis (Joy Division) and part Casey and His Brother (Tim and Eric).
Driving bass anchors most of the songs that are textured with synths and drum programming. “Driving” is a simplistic way to describe the bass tracks, but on one level, the bass is the leading instrument on this record. The bass is often accenting an upbeat, and the chord changes aren’t always where one expects. The way textures and vocal melodies weave in and out of songs and the timing of when phrases begin and end is dynamic, but these are musical qualities that don’t call attention to themselves. On the one hand, he’s not amazing anyone with chops in the stereotypical way progressive rock musicians are talked about. On the other hand, if one digs into the songs, one would notice how solidly, and interestingly, they’re built in a musical sense. There are layers and textures and phrases (the horizontal plane of melodies), but they are built upon each other in what sounds like formal ways (the vertical plane of harmony). In other words, there’s a musical crafting to the songs that extends beyond something like “let’s jam” or “punch in a tabla here and see what happens.” For example, you can dance to these songs, but at least one (“Teenage Witch”) is mostly in 10/4. There are extra measures in other songs that alter rhythmic expectations.
The lyrics on Screen Memories are almost haiku, rather than narratives. “The Combine,” the lead track, shows Maus crafting a distinctive pop song out of two sentences (“I see the combine coming. / It’s going to dust us all to nothing.”). Considering the repetition in pop songs, it’s surprising he makes that tradition even more concise, yet it still feels whole. The Residents constructed something similar on their Commercial Album of sixty second songs. The theory behind the record was that most pop songs were about three minutes long, but the chorus and verse repeated about three times, so the project was an attempt at making concise, though narrative, pop songs by cutting those repetitions. Maus simultaneously maintains traditional repetition and enigma without falling back on noise.
This track gets better every time I hear it. I recently saw the video and it’s interesting to use farm imagery in what has been called “electropop retrofuturism,” a Janus-faced vision, a kind of technology of the past representing a technological future that doesn’t exist. The farm imagery inverses Sun Ra’s imagery of spaceways and rockets. But in a digital society with various types of synthesizing processes at our fingertips, the combine is an interesting and effective image, regardless. A combine gets its name from the combining of actions that actually separates physical ears from stalks, or grains from grasses. The combine, like the computer, has altered labor forces. In the video, we see chaff and dust whirl, which matches up visually with the frequent pixelated images, even that static on the cover image from the television age. The combine could be the computer, the internet, the “matrix,” or whatever dystopic vision, including nuclear holocaust, one would want to feed back into the machine of the lyrics. The dust is the chaff, the ones and zeroes, the pixels, ashes, all that information. And like the antithesis of a combine that separates, the lyrics tell us “all” will come “to nothing.”
Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that, “knowledge itself is power.” It would make sense then that controlling information, mediating it (and our memories), is also a form of power. Maus uses the form of pop music, which itself is tied to commerce, capitalism, and power. The church, also historically a sign of power, is represented here through choral elements and a organ/synth-horn combination fanfare that within this context sounds nothing short of apocalyptic.
“Teenage Witch,” at first, seems out of character for the record, though not for pop music. The speaker says, “Want to start a fire, witch? For that icy titty?” There are no other potentially sexist lines like this on the record that I’ve heard. For me the key is the synth solo that reminded me of Rush. I thought about this as an outsider speaking: what if this song were from the point of view of the id of the kid in Rush’s “Subdivisions”? I hear the Puritanical echoes (and the fantasy imagery that Rush used) that many subcultures create or define for themselves in the track. Even outsiders burn others.
It feels like more of a comment on sexism than simply repeating it, especially when paired with “Touchdown,” which could be commentary on toxic masculinity and the cultural energies of competition and domination. The song and video represent clearly the retrofuturism that he’s been labeled with. “Touchdown” reminds me of the masculinity of ‘80s TV shows. The mood, music, and images reimagine something like the original Tron (1982), or action shows like Airwolf or Knight Rider. Just look at those titles: wolves, knights, gladiators. “Forward drive across the line!”
There are other ‘80s touchstones throughout the recording. “Walls of Silence,” “Sensitive Recollections,” “Decide Decide” sound like songs for disappointing school dances or end credits in John Hughes movies. “Find Out” features lo-fi guitar and bass interplay reminiscent of early Cure (particularly Three Imaginary Boys era), where there is this developing element, Goth rock or whatever, traditional bluesy guitar licks, and punk influences. I hear elements of Devo in “People are Missing,” “Pets,” and “Over Phantom.”
There are textures that will be familiar on Screen Memories. I don’t make any of those connections or suggest any of those influences (and there could be more: there is a baroque undercurrent or something–I’m not sure how to phrase it– to a lot of the record, but also little bits of Wire, Falco, Bauhaus, Tomita, etc.) The music looks forward as much as backward. Screen Memories, like any dystopian or retrofuturist vision, while reconstructing out of the past and envisioning possible futures, is even more about the present moment.
Screen Memories and other recordings by John Maus are available here.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.