Screen Memories meditates on the possibility that runaway technology will soon account for the human error altogether.
When last we left off with John Maus, on his superb 2011 album We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, the artist held forth on the rapid post-postmodernization of pop music, the ouroboric auto-consumption of a culture that was copying copies of copies at an exponentially fast rate. Screen Memories, Maus’ stirring comeback, jettisons that sardonic meta-textual critique for a more pressing issue. Befitting the amped-up extinction fears of climate change and renewed nuclear saber-rattling of the current moment, the album is rife with existential malaise. Where Maus’ previous record suggested that technological advances had reduced pop music to a series of preset switches that would permute with less and less human involvement, Screen Memories meditates on the possibility that runaway technology will soon account for the human error altogether.
Maus approaches the subject obliquely, ducking around more obvious symbols of technocratic decay to focus on the harvesting machine of “The Combine.” Opening the album with death disco synths and a front-and-center palm-muted bassline that rolls out in jagged, asymmetrical patterns, the track quickly swells into gothic orchestration, complete with moaning synthesizer strings and peals of funeral bells. “I see the combine coming/ It’s gonna dust us all into nothing,” Maus croons in his deep, dispassionate baritone, articulating in two lines vast, interconnected anxieties both literal (food scarcity and the potential dangers of tech in agriculture) and metaphoric (the notion of a giant reaping machine culling us, not plants). Maus plays similarly loose with his lyrics throughout; take “Touchdown,” otherwise just a straightforward description of a game of football. Rendered through Maus’s baroque vocals and the sick gloss of whistling synths that score the song, however, lines like “Forward drive across the line” take on more obvious inflections, as if the artist were talking about the nuclear football instead of a game.
Musically, the album follows the loose rubric that Maus has set for his strange style. Where former colleague Ariel Pink tends to play around in the blood-stained gauze of discarded ‘60s and ‘70s radio filler, Maus takes his cues from a more recent decade, plundering the early era of synthpop and combining it with gothic flavor, cod-medieval chanting and garage fuzz. An added dash of post-punk runs through this record, thanks mostly to the foregrounded bass guitar, which layers in springy but muted lines to everything, even the blissfully washed out “Decide Decide,” where it lightly burbles to add an anchor to the floating keyboards. “Walls of Silence,” meanwhile, sounds like it was discovered on some forgotten Factory single from 1979, with Maus’ croon and the rollicking bassline a dead ringer for Joy Division’s early, punkier sound.
Maus also expands his sound in less definable ways. Before “Edge of Forever” settles into a groove, it opens with heavily processed but gentle guitar-synth that is shockingly close to the kind of jazz fusion peddled by the likes of Allan Holdsworth in the ‘80s. Even when the track resolves to a more standardized slice of goth pop, it continuously folds in over itself, embodying its title with a kind of endless apocalypse, voices duplicating and reforming like germs as the arrangement occasionally builds to a head and then collapses back. “Screen Recollections” beams in from beyond the veil, vocals dissipated into a fine mist as synthesizers hang suspended in a vacuum, shimmering in such a way that they manage to sound pale.
There are still examples of Maus’ old sense of humor scattered across the album: the violent style clash between the subject and form of “Touchdown,” or the pleasingly demented “Pets,” in which Maus chants “Your pets are gonna die!” For the most part, however, the artist uses his wit here to constantly revise the songs as they go along, spiraling into surprising complexity for such bite-sized pop. “Find Out,” for example, starts out as a paranoid thriller warning that the subject of the song is going to be discovered and exposed, only for it to eventually flip to them being the ones uncovering others. “Over Phantom” applies a sprightly, almost jangling arrangement to a grim context of a spirit hovering over a battlefield, Maus’ usual moans now given explicit context. The album closes out with “Bombs Away,” as off-kilter a combination of paralyzing terror and eager death drive as the finale of Dr. Strangelove. A kind of companion piece to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Enola Gay,” “Bombs Away” trades that song’s detached, Ballardian eroticism and romance for pure lust, underlining the macabre sentiment that underneath all the nuclear fears may be a compulsive desire to be annihilated by our creations.