In ‘Loving Wonky’ I attempted to describe the effect of ‘wonky’s’ rhythms by imagining them as a ‘thrillingly precarious balance’, a ‘tug of war between a rationalised metrical reality and a psychedelic utopia (“no place”) in which figures we recognise are subsumed expressively into a seductive abstraction’. Broadening the metaphor, we might say that ‘wonky’ is an art with one foot on the earth and one foot in heaven (or indeed one foot in hell/madness, depending on your preference and how you feel about free rhythm and pitch). In a wider context such a metaphorical understanding of the relationship between conventional figuration and abstraction arguably recognises a major path taken by audiences in recognising and appreciating great art.
In a number of ways, this earth vs utopia (or ‘real’ vs ‘unreal’) aesthetic suits the fascinating music of John Maus, whose second album, 2007’s Love is Real, I have been enjoying on constant repeat this year. Indeed, its first song is entitled ‘Heaven is Real’, and various visions of Heaven and Hell cast their long shadows across Maus’s forty-five minutes of religiously ecstatic musical pilgrimage. Love is Real is a believer’s quest to reach the quintessence of pop’s emotional expressivity – or else discover such a thing to be a starry-eyed mirage. For it’s the ambiguity of Maus’s utopia that arguably makes it so compelling, so stimulatingly lost somewhere between heaven and earth. Are we in a ‘Heaven (that) is real’, basking in the hope-giving glow of a ‘Love (that) is real’? Or do we feel the disillusionment of pop’s quixotic project, the ironic permanence of earthly banality, even a hell in which (as Tantalus, Icarus, Prometheus and the rest will tell you) the joy of transcendence is hubris, punished, impossible and forever out reach? In the end, the answer to whether or not ‘Heaven is real’ will be a matter of faith.
In any case, Maus certainly offers listeners a pop that draws a transcendent power from its elegant, well-crafted simplicity. His lo-fi, Romantic pop of shimmering synths undeniably brings out all the sweetness of a single chord progression, the momentum of an ostinato and the immediacy of a lyrical fragment, all entirely within the nobly ‘savage’, humanising and refreshingly personal context of home-recorded composition. Like those of his occasional collaborator and friend of over a decade Ariel Pink, and to a certain extent those of Pink’s mentor R. Stevie Moore, Maus’s songs seem on the surface to dabble in what the most mainstream of aesthetics might deem to be nostalgia, kitsch and naïveté, but it would certainly be a shame to conclude that such qualities are there for shallow thrills or cheap shots. Maus, Pink, Moore and an increasing number of like-minded musical auteurs are showing us ‘pop about pop’: a critical commentary on the mediation between personal and popular aesthetics for which the message is (in) the medium.
The metapop of Maus and Pink is constantly likened to the tunes of previous artists by music critics, a technique which doesn’t do justice to their project, and their work is invariably described as ‘nostalgic’. Notions of nostalgia, pastiche and reference have dominated writing on recent trends in musical aesthetics, frequently in a mood of frustration, and games of sound association have become particularly popular. While such games serve as an insight into new musics and contribute to an appreciation of a diverse body of musical texts, there is more to any appreciation than this, and when played exclusively or excessively these games begin to prescribe and ossify listening practices.
Firstly there is this to be said about ‘nostalgia’: ‘Nostalgia’ in art is often a futurist opinion. It’s often a judgment only conceivable within an aesthetic agenda built around an imperative toward the wholly new. Any partial return to or resonance of old methods is only ‘backward-looking’ in the eyes of a doctrine that demands a progress predicated upon the constant invention of new (i.e. believed to be radically unfamiliar) methods. ‘Neo-classicism’ was/is a new cultural movement – even if some aspects were familiar, many were not, and yet this wasn’t enough for some modernists. An alternative, more finely tuned conception of progress sees the interaction of past and present in the formulation of increasingly subtle artistic results in a favourable light, as enriching and fertilising the present with the de- (and re-) familiarisation of the past(s).
Such balance between the ‘old/familiar’ and the ‘new/unfamiliar’ would of course exemplify the earth vs utopia aesthetic described above. So in many cases we might see ‘nostalgia’s’ pining for its given utopias as a fruitful aesthetic strategy, and actually this is one of the central tenets of Romantic(ist) aesthetics, as Romantic art projects heavens or hells onto ‘reality’ for emotionally resonant or fantastical effect. If romanticism does this and otherwise prioritises emotional resonance over other potential aesthetic concerns, it’s conceivably not restricted to nineteenth-century art and criticism. The term ‘post-utopian romanticism’ would describe a type of romanticism that generates emotional resonance from the loss, absence or unsustainability of a given utopia – and whether in specific cases the ‘post-’ actually applies could be unclear, a matter left to the subjectivities and philosophies of an audience. Though ‘post-utopian romanticism’ may refer to nostalgia, the term avoids the need to stretch the already vague and cumbersomely connotative definition of ‘nostalgia’ too far (would it be a personal, imaginary, political nostalgia? etc). For example, while it would be unproblematic to describe the constant, often melancholically fragmented pining of composer Charles Ives for his apparently utopian childhood and its associations as ‘nostalgia’, Peter Doig’s paintings of utopian modernist architecture expressively disappearing behind rampant foliage and distorted copies of old film stills are less easy to describe in such a way. Aspects of the (aesthetically comparable) work of both could be described as affording an aesthetic of post-utopian romanticism however.
Though John Maus’s style certainly can’t be reduced to pastiche, a major component of his utopian vision of Heaven is a particular resonance with eighties synth pop and film/television soundtracks in his music. It was probably inevitable that the mainstream eighties would become a focus for post-utopian/hauntological feeling: the music, film and television of the era confidently expressed a relatively pure sentimentality that we tend to deny ourselves these days but may nonetheless miss on some level. Treating this or any subject matter hauntologically (i.e. incorporating, as Maus does, certain signifiers such as lo-fi effects – tape hiss, DC offset, attenuated high frequencies, and various other ‘unprofessionalities’, or using procedures such as collage) can sanitise these sentiments by coating them in a layer of irony that manifests either textually or, ultimately, contextually. This irony can be by turns tragic, melancholic, playful, bitter, disturbing or satirical.
Love is Real is much more than this however, and when it comes to the potential for irony Maus’s music is intriguingly ambiguous. Ariel Pink put it this way:
John Maus is a maniac on a bloody crusade - a tortured evangelist on a mercenary quest to rid our world of villainous defilers of The Gospel of True Love. By turns shockingly infectious and disarmingly unpredictable, his music conflates a perplexing marriage of Moroder's 'Never Ending Story' and classical 12-tone renegades of 20th century past, harking the new path which resurrects romance from its post-modern shackles, and reignites the promise of a better world.Maus’s own words suggest a more complex relationship with what an observer might call irony, or as Pink mentions, postmodernity. In his video interview with XLR8R, Maus emphasises that he’s ‘not trying to say that there’s such a thing as sincerity or authenticity’, though he still believes in arriving at a genuine communality and that the task of music is to ‘connect’ with audiences: ‘it’s about being with each other’.
Maus’s essay and interview on R. Stevie Moore’s website reveal a great deal more about how he believes a listener might reconcile notions of irony and ‘truth’ (though he never actually uses the word ‘irony’ in connection with music). Maus, currently a political theory and philosophy instructor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, was a PhD candidate at the European Graduate School in Saas Fe, Switzerland and the sophisticated theories about his own music and that of Moore and Pink given expression in his text seem influenced by Badiou. Maus believes that Moore and Pink (as he himself also aims to) ‘proceed towards the singular truth of pop’ through the ‘excessive affirmation’ of the ‘particulars of pop’ (namely ‘standardization, materialization and multiplication’). To quote haphazardly from Maus’s methodical and meticulous essay:
R. Stevie and Ariel… exceed the standardization of pop through excessive affirmation of this particular in all of its own particulars: standardization of form, standardized emotional intention, standardization of genre, and so on. Standardization of form is the commodification of what listeners listen to in the way called music, that it will meet particular standards: song form, tonality, periodic rhythm, and so on. In the pop song ‘You Are True’, R. Stevie exceeds standardization of form though affirmation of it, i.e., this pop song is too much a pop song… This affirmation exceeds what there is. In it, the untruth of the situation becomes obvious not through negation, which commercial capitalism can always appropriate and thus even solicits, but through excessive affirmation i.e. subjective expression of what there is.It could be appropriate to consider this ‘excessive affirmation’ that ‘speaks to untruth’ as having an ironic, sarcastic, satirical dimension. And yet it certainly isn’t clear that Moore, Pink and Maus consider ‘the truth of pop’ in negative terms, or that their music is merely a satirical drawing back of the veil to reveal ugliness beneath. On the contrary, all three artists seem in love with ‘the truth of pop’, and each of them has shown us genuine moments of transcendent sweetness. But potentially irony needn’t necessitate a sneer. The most emphatic exploration of the nature of pop’s truth is in Maus’s (and Pink’s) music, which forces us to consider whether pop is shown to be the commodified sham of a hellish musical dystopia (through irony), or a touchingly, amusingly earthy effort – or real, true and heavenly. The liberating genius of Maus and Pink is that with their music all three of these apparently contradictory readings coexist ambiguously and inextricably. It’s this apparent contradiction in terms that points to a perfect truth about art.
…R. Stevie and Ariel exceed an untrue situational state where everyone is ‘self-evidently equal’ and therefore ‘replaceable,’ such an affirmation of subjectivity is truthful. Moreover, this affirmation is the progressive purification of pop towards its truth through the subtraction of genre.
…Materialization of pop means, e.g., pop as consumable object, the pop record album’s inextricability from the materials of its production, and so on… R. Stevie and Ariel use production materials in all of their manifestations, not only those currently in fashion. As the situational state continues to ‘improve’ its means of production, i.e., through new products and planned obsolescence, the use of now obsolete materials speaks to something in excess of it. Moreover, R. Stevie and Ariel foreground the materiality of these obsolete materials.
Charles Ives, the American musical pioneer who ninety years before had a very similar artistic project to Pink and Maus, said (influenced by Emerson and transcendental philosophy) that ‘vagueness is at times an indication of nearness to a perfect truth’. The self-deconstructing vagueness of truth and truth of vagueness are perfected on Love is Real.
It begins with the first song, ‘Heaven is Real’. Of course the statements ‘love is real’ and ‘heaven is real’ imply a rejoinder, so the fact that Maus is making them could introduce doubt about their veracity. As such these titles respond to a cultural context in which as opinions they’re denied and disbelieved – not everyone would take such statements at face value in a postmodern climate. With an almost heartbreaking sincerity, ‘Heaven is Real’ promises us that ‘you don’t have to run away from love any more’, adding ‘that’s what friends and love is for / love the world and love all man’. And yet as in a Schubert or Schumann Lied that sets a Heinrich Heine text, it’s artfully unclear whether the musical accompaniment is in agreement with these lyrics, potentially naïve (in a Romantically ironic way) as they are (note that in the XLR8R interview, Maus quotes Beckett’s(?) assertion that ‘the worst thing that ever happened to music was words’). The harmonic feel is minor, the tempo high, the voice acoustically distant and the overall mood one of anxious, fleet-footed uncertainty – are we still running from love, despite the lyrics? Or is Maus’s fatherly, Christ-like voice calling after us with wise advice, attempting to sooth us as we continue to flee? Does he succeed? Which is ‘true’, the words or the music? There are no answers or resolutions – ‘run away, (don’t run away)’.
Often in themselves, though, Maus’s usually political lyrics throughout Love is Real are perfectly poised between the genuinely persuasive and the ironically unpersuasive. In general, this balance is achieved because the lyrics for each song are typically little more than a phrase or sentence or two, a slogan. In the XLR8R interview, Maus notes that his brother calls these slogans the ‘mantras’ in his songs. One of the most memorable mantras on Love is Real is the eponymous ‘Rights for Gays’, in which the only elaboration or argument in support of this vague political slogan, which is repeated 12 times, is ‘oh yeah’. And while we’re at it, how about ‘medical care for everyone’? ‘The doctor is in’! The song is bound to amuse, and yet it cannot be denied that the phrase ‘Rights for Gays’ is a valid, powerful sentiment. I’m reluctant to accept the idea that as a university teacher of politics and philosophy, there is no self-awareness (perhaps irony, if you like) whatsoever about the simplicity of ‘Rights for Gays’ as a politically active song. So ultimately ‘Rights for Gays’ could be taken as a woefully, tragically inadequate attempt at articulating a political statement (hell), an homage to conventional, everyday politics (earth) or a heroic demand for a more utopian society (heaven). It’s all three simultaneously.
Another potential symbol of utopian perfection that’s introduced and then ‘imperfected’ in Maus’s work is classical counterpoint, at which he’s highly proficient. His moorestevie.com interview and his youtube playlist of favourites indicate extensive knowledge of the traditions and disciplines of this musical art, particularly as it pertains to choral music from the beginnings of polyphony through the medieval, renaissance and baroque eras to Brahms. That Maus is an expert on the (now unfortunately largely anachronistic) techniques of counterpoint makes him a Luke Skywalker-like figure, the only Jedi of his generation, born and trained in their age-old arts after their demise, the brave new hope for defeating the evil Empire. Actually there are more than a few students of counterpoint today, but there can’t be many who bring their craft directly into the field of pop like Maus does. One of the tracks on Love is Real, ‘Green Bouzard’, is a brilliantly executed traditional fugal passage in the style of Handel or Bach, whose skill at counterpoint is frequently seen as ‘perfection’. This fugue is hardly presented in the most perfect of circumstances however. The sound quality is low, it’s played on the somewhat cheesy imitation pipe organ voice of an electronic keyboard, and at the very beginning the reverb tails from some now cut previous notes still linger. In these ways the piece hints at unprofessionality, even kitsch, and yet at the same time the mastery of the fugue remains – earth, hell and heaven seem one.
A passage of counterpoint also appears in ‘Tenebrae’ and it’s a major aspect of ‘Love Letters from Hell’ too. In the latter, Maus appropriates the musical material of the song from the Agnus Dei of the Missa La Sol Fa Re Mi by revered fifteenth- and sixteenth-century master of sacred polyphony Josquin des Prez, included on Maus’s youtube playlist. The combination of pop and a renaissance mass section is smoothly done, and the lyrics of the song work together with the liturgical text of the Agnus Dei, which is: Lamb of God, who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us… grant us peace (Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis… dona nobis pacem). Maus’s lyrics are:
I’m feeling very sorry that it hasn’t rained all year
I’m feeling very sorry, and I’ve got the fear
It’s taking time to sort through my winding mind
While they are tortured on my watch
We’ve got to find a way
Don’t let them fade away, baby
We’ve got to change the way
‘Til there’s no one left inside this secret place.
The traditionally pop-like lyrics (‘baby’) hint at sins of omission, a subsequent guilt and the need for redemption while the text implied by the setting of Josquin’s aesthetically and religiously sacred Agnus Dei offers absolution. The combination of words that suggest a hell with heaven’s comforting, forgiving music creates a dialectical movement towards heaven. But is pop made sacred and heavenly here, or is sacred renaissance counterpoint brought down to earth/made hellish? Is the combination of the two a folly or a utopian gesture? Again, no answer to such questions is indicated, and all answers are valid.
More than one commentator has described Maus’s music as ‘baroque pop’. Although the inclusion of a Handelian fugue makes the definition rather literal in Maus’s case, the term ‘baroque pop’ has always seemed quite vague and a little misplaced. It traditionally describes the mid-sixties pop that incorporated classical instrumentation, and the fact that the most prominent of these instruments was often the harpsichord probably went some way in suggesting the epithet ‘baroque’, though the musical style is rarely akin to the classical music of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Although Maus’s work often has the dramatic and Romantic qualities of sixties baroque pop, it can’t be said to have its characteristic instrumentation or formal structures.
Actually the word ‘baroque’ refers to a deformed or irregularly-shaped pearl, which already seems, with its contradictory co-existence of the traditionally ‘beautiful’ and the traditionally ‘flawed’ or ‘low quality’, a suitable metaphor for Maus’s music. The word was first applied to music in 1733 to disparagingly describe Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie and was used then and subsequently as a generally pejorative term describing bizarre, extravagant, excessively aesthetic or aesthetically distasteful/unprofessional music (before it later became the name for an era in Western classical music) – again, this definition is perhaps appropriate for Maus’s work as it compares with today’s traditional aesthetics of mainstream pop, though without the negative connotations. This aesthetic of ‘excess’ was of course established in Maus’s essay to describe the songs of Moore and Pink as allowing these artists and Maus to ‘proceed towards the truth of pop’.By the standards of today’s pop mainstream, Maus’s voice alone has certain ‘bizarre, extravagant, excessively aesthetic or aesthetically distasteful/unprofessional’ qualities, both poetically and sonically. It’s often ‘too deep’ or ‘too resonant’ for the fashions of today’s mainstream pop, and the faux-English accent and the pronunciation of words like ‘baby’ and ‘town’ (in ‘Old Town’) is ‘affected’ and ‘over-stylised’ – all qualities that can be attractive in themselves of course. As poetic, Romantic utterances Maus’s songs are similarly ‘baroque’, perhaps none more so than ‘The Silent Chorus’. The text of this song alternates between and mixes together various heavens and hells, it’s both deeply Romantic (potentially to excess) and descriptive of hauntological sentiment:
This is the time for all but sunset
And this is the time to hang our sorrows up in cedar trees
This is the time to gather at tables aloud with memory
Of our lost play and childish pageantry
This is the time for lost abandonment
And this is the time for stupid whores and drunken malady
For th’earning keep through joyless drudgery
La la la la la, (etc)
(Note that in the XLR8R interview Maus tells us that while he was writing Love is Real he was working as a cable guy!) As a backdrop for these undeniably poignant lyrics, Maus lays down one of the most sublimely beautiful soundscapes on the album – warm synths guided through monumental chord progressions are layered like clouds at sunset, guitars tingle like the strumming of angels’ harps, divine drums echo across an enormous space and minor resolves constantly into major as the pearly gates slowly open to bathe us in rays of transfiguring light.
I would consider arguing, controversially perhaps, that this dimension of potential ‘excess’ and ‘imperfection’ in ‘The Silent Chorus’ illustrates a ‘truer’ or more aesthetically ‘final’ pop than those from the apparently (and unfortunately, perhaps) less self-aware tradition of comparable transfiguration songs by Romantic heroes like Scott Walker and Joy Division etc (i.e. ‘The Electrician’ etc, ‘Atmosphere’ etc, even songs like Phil Collins’s ‘Take Me Home’ etc), (the reception of Joy Division being rather spoiled by Control – a negatively ‘excessively [Romantic] aesthetic’ film if there ever was one). This transfiguration song is too much a transfiguration song. Indeed, reviewing in The Wire, Simon Hampson noted that ‘with its theatrical mid-Atlantic baritone and icy synth textures, Love is Real sometimes recalls late Joy Division, albeit with a greater self-awareness about how camp such miserabilism can be.’ By rising above inevitably changeable temporal aesthetics, rooted as they are in relativism, shifting fashions and an indecisive discourse on music for which all that was ever worthy eventually turns to kitsch or becomes negatively ‘baroque’ anyway, Maus begins to reach ‘the truth of pop’ as it’s relevant today.
One of the most memorable moments of excess on Love is Real happens at the centre of the album, in ‘Tenebrae’. By all accounts ‘Tenebrae’ is a religious observance that takes its name from the services celebrated by Catholics and some Protestants during Holy Week, hence its mantra, ‘Sing to the mystery of his blood’. The first section connotes church music and perhaps plainchant, then follows a section of classical counterpoint derived from the opening material. Suddenly a third section arrives with enormously thick, awe-inspiring chord sequences. This section is excessive in a quite literal, sonic sense because it exceeds headroom and thus becomes crackly and indistinct. Moreover, the beginning of this third section has been utterly unprepared for. Normally in a similar work by a composer such as Mahler this climactic moment would have been prepared for by a textural and dynamic crescendo at least several minutes long (and one feels sure that Maus would know this), but here it enters unannounced at full volume, right at a metrically unstressed part of the counterpoint. Such an introduction satisfies the eighteenth-century pejorative definition of ‘baroque’, but it can be seen as a masterstroke – just as religious faith is tested, it tests one’s aesthetic faith.
It could also be seen to represent the Passion with more immediacy and reality (truth) than a more aesthetically restrained style might have. There is a key part of the Tenebrae celebrations, the strepitus (‘great noise’), in which a loud noise is made by some means (book slamming etc) while the church is in complete darkness, an act which symbolises the earthquake that followed the death of Christ. The entry of Maus’s own strepitus surprises the listener in a similar fashion, and aptly portrays the awesome power of the earthquake (and the similarly awesome power of the Lord God), making a decidedly ‘great noise’ in the process. ‘Tenebrae’ is followed by the song ‘Too Much Money’, where a similar event occurs: its mantra asks ‘whatcha gonna do with all that money?, and suddenly halfway through the song there’s an almost deafening scream. This shocking, hellish moment obscures the music entirely and pushes the listener’s ‘aesthetic faith’ to the very limit – as such it recalls the biblical promise that judgment day will come ‘like a thief in the night’, and as Christ said, ‘I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’.
Pure Rockets, Sweet Armageddon‘Too Much Money’ isn’t the only instance of Apocalypse on Love is Real. One of my favourite Maus songs on this album and in all of his work is ‘Pure Rockets’ (which can be heard on Maus’s myspace page). Its text is minimal:
Missiles in flight
Time to say goodbye to the sky
Time to say goodbye to the trees and the oceans and the breezes
Missiles are headed towards your house
The disjunction between this text and the gorgeous eventual resolutions to major harmony that are so characteristic of Love is Real (and seem to express such hope and happiness) is chilling, and chillingly liberating. Evidently this song is the two-minute warning prior to oblivion, and the lyrical message is beguilingly child-like and simple. It’s the chorus that really raises the hairs on the back of the neck: a low-pass filter is applied to the synths, making them seem distant, dreamlike, wistful and elegiac. The chords they enact are airy second inversion triads, often syncopated, as if we’re spotting contrails in the upper atmosphere or witnessing explosive impacts on the horizon. The phrase ‘missiles in flight’ is emphasised overall, the enduring image constantly reiterated in different decorative permutations and magnified by time-stretching; it’s obsessively scrutinised like the idée fixe of some trauma-induced psychosis. This Armageddon is undeniably sweet, and yet somehow this sweetness doesn’t seem inappropriate enough to allow us to dismiss it as a simple irony. ‘Pure Rockets’ makes the subject of imminent hell on earth into a heaven.
So is Heaven real? That’ll depend on the faith of Maus’s listeners, like the parable of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s film Ordet, in which an apparent madman who claims he is Christ is faithlessly disbelieved by even the most zealous of religious believers on the grounds of the ‘truth’ of modern medical knowledge (read that as ‘contemporary aesthetic mores’ for Maus’s own gospel). Yet even the most icy-hearted and nihilistic listeners would find it difficult to resist being seduced on some level by the various Heavens Maus paints, whether they’re understood ironically or not. One might conclude that Heaven is as real as its image and its effect on reality, both of which can certainly be felt on Love is Real. The final truth is that there is no single way of appreciating any art, and Maus demonstrates this truth for any and every listener by artfully rendering his music as aesthetically ambiguous and yet undeniably genuine. Ultimately I don’t think it matters if Heaven is real – because somewhere between Hell, Earth and Heaven (wherever they are, real or otherwise), John Maus is finding the truth, the reality of pop.
P.S. Of all the Michael Jackson (RIP) tributes that I’ve read, I thought k-punk’s was by far the best - do give it a read. In other news, the loveliest couple in Oldham answer phone calls for Soulja Boy.