Whether carefully constructed artifice or whether the legitimate product of living on a different plane than much of humanity, the thought process behind the character, the myth, the man John Maus has long remained largely impenetrable. If he’s not vehemently dismissing independent record stores in interviews, he’s sending 40,000 word manifestos to blogs in response to satirical open letters. He’s working on his PhD. He’s a sometimes-instructor at the University of Hawaii (he’s noted as a hot T.A. on Rate My Professors), a former keyboard player for both Ariel Pink and Panda Bear, and a purveyor of wholly unpretentious new wave tunes under his solo moniker.
Yeah, he gets around. And in this prolificacy, the figure that is John Maus has only become more obscured. What is Maus really about? How does he work? What’s his deal, really? Why is he shouting into that reverbed microphone over those prerecorded backing tracks? Is he having a seizure? Does he need help? While it may be tempting to view this release, a compilation of unreleased tracks from his five-year recorded career and before, as an answer of sorts to any of those posed questions — questions he likely wants us to ask — it’s something else entirely. Rather than being the sort of collection that gives you insight into a creative process, it adds to Maus’ mythos, providing 45 minutes of fully developed tracks that, while perhaps more human than much of his other material, is as entirely fulfilling as any of his solo work to date.
It’s largely the same fractured drum machine and keyboard pop tunes that made 2011’s We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves his most widely accepted work to date. The bass-heavy drive of “Quantum Leap” and “Cop Killer” are foreshadowed in one of the two tracks from 2010 on the compilation “Castles In The Grave.” Built on a synth sound that’s equal parts church organ and Moroder, the mostly unintelligible verses and rapidly arpeggiating synth lines serve to set up one of the more manic Maus refrains. One can imagine, given his live show, that the recording of this track was met with facial contortions most fitting of possession scenes in some cheesy horror film. That’s the beauty of Maus’ studio work and it’s connection to his live persona, the emotion that he imbues his live performance with is now so well-known that it’s almost inherent in his studio records.
This wasn’t necessarily true of his work on Love Is Real. As a relative unknown, Maus’ bizarre vocal affectations were instead largely met with bewilderment and accusations of insatiable pretension rather than the absurd emotion with which he colors his songs live. Songs like “Rights For Gays” were unfairly dismissed as silly send-ups of the new wave era his music aped, but “Mental Breakdown,” which precedes even Maus’ debut album, and “Bennington” can be viewed, with the lens of the pure emotion of his live performance clearing the concerns of insincerity, as some of the most human of his works to date. “Bennington” in particular, with its peculiar fascination with the girl from the titular town, lends Maus a loveably disaffected personality that you struggle to gather from much of his other studio recordings. Nowhere, except perhaps on We Must Become’s beautifully sincere Molly Nilsson cover “Hey Moon” has Maus distilled such entirely relatable emotion into a studio track. Such emoting is generally reserved for his live shows.
And so it goes through the rest of these tracks. Compilations like these always run the risk of bringing comparatively inferior tracks to the light of day. However, each of these tunes, including the classical inflected “Fish With Broken Dreams” (the earliest track, ostensibly recorded when Maus was 19), hold up to the standard of his previous studio efforts, perhaps even surpassing some of the filler from his two earliest LPs. So who is Maus? What does Maus do? Where is Maus headed? All these questions are no easier answered upon a listen to A Collection Of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material. But what we can gather, as further support for last year’s landmark album, is that Maus sure knows how to write a catchy and carefully affecting pop song. If these are the tracks that he deemed unworthy for proper studio release, we can only imagine what he has in store for future efforts.