Ribbon Music · May 18, 2018
On his fifth studio album Addendum, the “addendum” piece or companion to 2017’s Screen Memories, John Maus keeps up the momentum— and regains some of the whimsy— of his previous records.
John Maus’s draw as an artist in 2018 encompasses four main components: an explosive stage presence, an enigmatic public persona that struggles to reconcile an interest in both academic philosophy and pop culture, a borderline obsessive interest in synthesizers, and lyrics that evoke the absurd.
On his newest release Addendum, I would argue that four out of the five still persist— leaving out, of course, the stage presence. Addendum is a collection of songs made during the time Maus spent making Screen Memories. At the time of Screen Memories’ release, Maus told Tiny Mix Tapes, “I would say Screen Memories is the more fraught-over tracks. Addendum, if I had to explain it, is what came easier,” going on to describe the choice to split his most recent work into two albums as an attempt to “put a bow around” his last few years’ work. It might also be one of the last albums that Maus approaches by himself, without being in a proper studio or bringing in other instrumental performers.
The album doesn’t feel like the end of an era, though, and this is both a strength and a weakness. In one way, it’s the same old Maus; in another, it’s just the same old Maus. The sort of unnerving, absurd lyrics that have persisted throughout his entire discography still shine through from the very beginning of the record, in which Maus proclaims, “Mr. Money Bags, Mr. Brand New Shoes, Mr. I am a god… they don’t know shit about outer space.” In the next song, he goes on to recall a similar feeling from Screen Memories’ ‘Pets’— a song about pets dying— on ‘Dumpster Baby,’ a song where his deep, somewhat unsettling baritone announces, “Take that baby to the dump / to the dump.” It’s the sort of irreverent, intentionally flippant songwriting, naturally overlaid with 80s-pop inspired synths, that Maus has become known and loved for. It’s the sound I first fell in love with on 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, listening to Maus invoke his imagined audience to “kill every cop in sight” on ‘Cop Killer.’
Compared to Screen Memories, Addendum is a little less dark and dystopian, and more of a light-hearted meditation on the oddities that Trump’s America has brought rather than an ominous one. There is more humor that shines through on the album — in Maus’s words, it’s a record that “comes easier,” both to Maus and a listener. That’s not to say that Addendum is simple or straightforward. In true Maus fashion, it’s anything but, and seems to reflect the hesitant optimist in Maus. While Screen Memories is largely focused on some sort of apocalyptic scenario, this album hovers in the middle ground between apocalypse and utopia; a world in which, perhaps, we can evade the mess we’ve made and move backwards. The choice to end the album on two remixed versions of earlier Maus songs, ‘1987’ and ‘I Want to Live,’ reflects this optimism. “Always forward, / I want to live / Forever is now,” Maus chants on the latter song, perhaps clueing us into the possibility of change – something that Screen Memories deliberately doesn’t invite on its final song ‘Bombs Away,’ instead invoking catastrophe of nuclear proportions.
Addendum is also a return to some of the whimsicality that Maus’s previous records (2007’s Love Is Real, in particular) displayed with moxie. It’s genuinely fun as much as it is bizarre, with Maus’ classic 80s inspired synth-pop, interspersed with a lo-fi charm and generally reverb-drenched sound, reaching levels of pleasant gaudiness it hasn’t hit in a while… at least until the album takes a turn for the more solemn later on. On ‘Privacy,’ a song written by college classmate and common musical influence Ariel Pink, Maus seems to bask in the loneliness of shutting yourself off, while on ‘Middle Ages,’ he contemplates a life trapped in purgatory. Ultimately, it strikes a good balance between its serious themes and the more nonsensical cuts, managing not to turn itself into a joke before the end of its rather short 35 minutes.
As it stands, Addendum is worth more than a few listens for anyone with any serious interest in Maus’s discography, and it does fairly well holding up to the Maus hype that the release of Screen Memories regenerated. To someone just jumping in, though, it’s maybe not the first place I’d point you. Compared to Maus’s other record of what might be called B-sides, A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material, this album feels a bit less calculated and a more carefree attempt at retaining audience engagement. It’s a version of Maus that is less obsessive in creating its image, a quality that ends up being both intriguing and disappointing.
Listen to Addendum here: