When it comes to (self) discipline (Graham’s well thought through and carefully considered theme for Round 41) I can’t think of a better album title than ‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’ which happens to be the name of John Maus’ album from 2011. This title seems particularly prescient at the moment seeing as the British press is currently under such intense scrutiny following the publication of the Leveson report. If only Rebekah Brooks, Andy Caulson, Paul McMullen and the like had listened to John Maus, the media in this country might not be in the perilous state it is currently in.
To be honest, the main reason I took this album to record club is the title – We Must Become…is an album I bought on the basis of scouring the end of year polls and internet chatter at the end of last year and, whilst I have always liked it well enough, it’s been pressed to play at 45rpm which is such a faff on my turntable (as I have to lift the platter and fiddle with a rubber band to change the speed) that I have never really got to know it properly. At this point I must take this opportunity to implore Record Companies to put the playing speed on their albums as this was the second time I have listened to an album for a considerable length of time (the other occasion was Yellow House by Grizzly Bear) before realising that I was playing it at the wrong speed…I had read that the vocals were quite ‘doomy’ and odd on We Must Become…so my eyebrows were a little raised when I first played it, but I soon came round to the idea and actually quite enjoyed the record in its ‘extra-baritone’ state until I realised the error of my ways. But there are probably millions, if not billions, of folks out there listening to their John Maus and Grizzly Bear albums at the wrong speed and none the wiser…which is really a great shame as they are actually a little better (if less unusual) when played at the intended pitch.
The album itself is an odd one, but one that I have grown increasingly fond of over time. For me there are two pinnacles that, a little bit like towering transmitter masts, radiate their quality over the rest of the album, gradually working their influence into acclimatising the listener to some of the less accessible tracks that surround them. Believer and Hey Moon are two of my favourite songs of the past few years and I am mesmerised by their grandeur and the lightness of touch that Maus demonstrates in creating such a perilously wonderful soundscape. In the wrong hands Believer could be an 80s Xmas single by some horrible synth band – it’s all there, the washes of ever-so slightly cheesy synthesisers, the tinny metronomic drums, the lumpy bass. But Maus skilfully navigates the line, treading ever so close to it at times but (just about) always staying on the timeless, vaguely Eno-esque side of it as opposed to crossing over into Flock of Seagulls territory. Someone on Youtube has commented: ‘Damn, Phil Collins got much better’; about as slight as a compliment can get, but I know what he means. Hey Moon is, for me, even better – a beautiful ballad that was originally recorded by one Molly Nilsson (Swedish so presumably nothing to do with Nilsson of Without You fame). It’s a stunning track that emanates its quality over the rest of the album so effectively that before many listens even the most awkward of songs (I’m looking at you Matter of Fact) start to sound like works of near-genius.
Many internet folk rated this one of the very best albums of last year and whilst it has become cool to lambast the end of year list in some quarters I probably wouldn’t have discovered this overlooked gem without them. And looking back at the records I have now heard from 2011, I have to say that, in my opinion, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is right up there with the best of them!
Rob listened: This is a mercurial record. I listened to it a few times after it placed so strongly in so many end of year lists and found it too elusive to get a grip of. I’m sure that my tinny laptop speakers didn’t help because this evening it sounded like a totally different proposition. I’m not quite sure why that might be. Maus’s aesthetic seems to involve writing reasonably straight electronic pop songs and then processing the hell out of them to drag every note, every drumbeat, every synth wash back to some muddy mid-80’s netherworld, topping the whole with his voice, a sort of stunned Mark Burgess doom-boom. Listening back again now i’m caught between the two. I don’t know why he does it, but i’m glad he does. I’m not sure whether it’s okay to like a song like ‘Keep Pushing On’ which is essentially ‘Electric Dreams’ played down a quarter-mile sewer pipe, but I do. I can see how insidiously this could grow on you, and I reckon i’ll give it a change to take root.
Nick listened: Like Rob I noticed this place well in lists 12 months ago, but unlike him I didn’t feel at all compelled to investigate. Listening to it hasn’t changed this ambivalence – it wasn’t bad in any way, but I struggled to get a sense of the songs beneath the aesthetic, and, because the aesthetic didn’t really do it for me, there was little else for me to walk away with.
Graham Listened: If Tom could see my hands, he would instantly recognise them as the “wrong”. Put this album in them and it is unlikely to come out well. Maybe my elderly years means I’m can recall some of the worst of new romantic/synth pop better than others. Anyway my prejudice got firmly in the way and I didn’t really get past the “this sounds like….”, and trying to figure out why you would want to recreate such a sound.