John Maus

Screen Memories

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Arriving six years after his previous studio album, Screen Memories rejoins Minnesota musician John Maus after he finished his doctorate in political philosophy and set about building his own custom set of modular synthesizers to record it. As evoked by cover art that shows a sparsely furnished room with a snowy cathode-ray tube TV, Maus returns to a cinematic, turn-of-the-'80s-inspired synth pop, if a slightly more coherent one with his new setup. Still suggesting an underground music of the Max Headroom universe, his sometimes indiscernible, Ian Curtis-like delivery and a tendency to repeat only a few lines again and again within a song continue to put the spotlight on mood and texture over melody or message. In fact, the album's wordiest entry, "Bombs Away," is the only track not written by Maus here. It's a version of a song by former classmate and collaborator Ariel Pink with Matt Fishbeck, who recorded it together as Holy Shit! (The duo also has a song called "Maus Is Missing.") Like much of Screen Memories, a lively bassline, spacy synths, minor chords, and echoing vocals build an ominous yet driving retro post-punk. "Touchdown" is almost funky underneath glistening synthesizer timbres as it lulls listeners into a dreamy mechanical landscape with repeated variations of "Go for the touchdown/Yeah, the touchdown." The track shifts gears at the halfway point, though ("Forward drive across the line"), with drums switching to double time, followed by movement in chord progressions before it leans back into the La-Z-Boy. This kind of wry humor fits right in on a song that plays like a dark take on Kraftwerk, and on an album that has tracks called "Sensitive Recollections" and "Teenage Witch." With engaging basslines that act as the hooks and the glue to Maus' carefully contrived sound, Screen Memories succeeds by basking in its murky splendor.

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