John Maus doesn’t care to see if you’re paying attention. He knows you can’t help but watch.
On record, Maus’ lo-fi hypnagogic-synth-pop experiments are unsettling yet frighteningly captivating little tunes. In concert, armed with nothing but a microphone, a laptop and an unhinged fervor, he creates worlds — worlds of pure, unfiltered emotion, of indescribable ecstasy and unimaginable loss, of righteous, all-consuming fury and demented whimsy.
The dime-store synths and cantering drum-machine beats that form much of his discography become the background to one man’s feeling, with all of the wonder and stupefaction that entails.
Here, on a rainy night on Cat’s Cradle’s main stage, every word of that moderately hyperbolic description rings true. Maus’ set is a career-spanning tour of his highs and lows, ranging from hopped-up synth-pop bangers to transcendent, slow-motion reveries. Deeply fraught with outsider angst, the songs hammer their way into the subconscious and smolder there. Yet they’re somehow still ludicrously catchy affairs — all crystalline melodies and pounding, feel-it-in-your-bones bass lines, hardly a tune goes by without a good bit of the audience breaking into dance. Never let it be said that relentlessly deconstructivist pop must always be deconstructed itself to be enjoyed.
But the music, great as it is, is ultimately accompaniment: this is a performance in the truest sense of the word. From the moment he first turns to the crowd to the moment he dashes off post-encore, Maus’ blue-shirted figure takes on an ascendant character, never flagging for even the slightest instant.
Onstage, the man — in this hour an ostensible conduit for all emotional discharge taking place in a 50-mile radius — bounces up and down like a deranged tree-frog, howls until his voice breaks, pumps his fists with frightening intensity and repeatedly whacks his temples as his face contorts in a caricature of pure agony (ecstasy? despair? Who can tell?), all while belting out mostly unintelligible lines about outer space, gay rights, large-scale cop slaughter, fragile love and boundless, black-hole loss. At one point, seemingly possessed by an outside force, he starts running wind sprints up and down the stage. Melodramatic as it all might seem, it’s more than fair to say the lines between Maus and the very concept of emotion are thin.
Not many performers possess this sort of direct neural link to untapped feelings. As the set goes on, the throbbing bass, jittery synths and Maus’ effects-drenched vocals coalesce into something hypnotic, something practically spiritual. During “And Heaven Turned To Her Weeping” — one of the few oases of calm in this frenetic hour — Maus, over an ocean of woozy synth pads, croons gently of a long-lost lover and something clicks: to witness a John Maus show is not simply to watch. You’re experiencing what he has, if only just a tiny bit.
At one point, Maus’ MacBook dies mid-song. The spell breaks for a scant few minutes. The crowd mills about, shouting occasional encouragement, until Maus strides purposefully back onstage, charger held aloft like a trophy from on high, and the performance is back on all cylinders in an instant. It’s the only hiccup in an otherwise awe-inspiring performance — powerful, moving, fun, certainly — but also deeply intimate, on a level few artists, musical or otherwise, can reach.
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