John Maus is all about history. When the avant-garde electro-pop eccentric isn’t in the studio, he’s in a classroom, studying and teaching philosophy, using ideas from generations past to help sculpt the base for his own compositions. He absorbs sounds from baroque and medieval composers, adding yet another layer of archival depth to his sound. And now, with the release of his new album, A Collection Of Rarities And Previously Unreleased Material, Maus is using his own personal history to lay down a 16-track timeline of his musical development from 1999-2010.
The typical problem with a collection album is that it can lack the cohesion that is otherwise present in an album that is carefully crafted and composed over a single period of time. The interesting thing about A Collection Of Rarities… is that even though it can prove to be a bit odds-and-ends-y, there is a distinct and clear flow to it when listened to, not in the given track order, but chronologically.
The lone track from 1999, “Fish With Broken Dreams,” is a glorious throwback to simpler electronic times, choosing the creepy-piano route to express what would later be done with blurry synths and buzzing basslines. His vocals had not yet evolved into the reverb-laden drones associated with Maus’s later work, but they still encapsulate the same melodramatic theme. “At night, hear the cries, and everybody wonders why,” Maus yawns over the eerily happy key line.
Moving onward and upward, Maus reaches the pinnacle of his pop sound during the mid-2000s, as the melodies become sweeter, the fuzz becomes lighter, the synths get brighter, but that Maus-ian drama still remains intact. In one of the more interesting tracks on the album, “My Hatred Is Magnificent,” Maus lays down only two perplexing lines (“My hatred is magnificent” and “I run for you”), but he surrounds them with a deep baroque-style synth line (an influence Maus references openly), bleeding out into a sea of snappy snare beats and airy keys, filling up the empty lyrical space, creating an odd Phantom Of The Opera-David Bowie amalgamation.
The most questionable track, the somewhat ironically titled “Lost,” doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. The piano plays with tension and release while a ragged guitar wails away in stagnant chunks. There’s a lot of tension but not so much release. On the same tense note, but seven years later, “Castles In The Grave” produces a noise so unexpected that it is actually startling. The bagpipe-seagull squeal is just loud enough that it will scare the crap out of you if you’re not paying attention.
With an artist like Maus, it becomes less about the music itself and more about the philosophy behind it (for example, adapting music to whatever the higher power is at that moment in time). On its own, with no context, it is a very difficult style to wrap your head around, but after learning about Maus—his extreme intelligence and his oddly logical way of approaching composition (using the “pop vernacular”)—everything becomes clearer and actually starts to sound better. It’s impossible to pretend that this album will appeal to everyone. In fact, it probably won’t rope in many. But for those few who do get it, A Collection Of Rarities… will provide a truly uncommon and sometimes jarring glimpse into the evolution of an incredible musical mind.