John Maus’ lo-fi experiments have been dismissed as vintage-electronica wankery, but that can’t account for how much of We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves lingers in the ears long after the album’s end. As on his previous two records, Maus kneels at the altar of ’80s-era synth pop, muttering incoherently like Ian Curtis after a concussion, but he’s succeeded in giving Pitiless Censors a captivating cohesion. Across the album, delicate ballads (“Hey Moon”) drift across tense, sparkling keyboard riffs (“Keep Pushing On”), eventually building into the epic closer “Believer,” a soaring, otherworldly haze of keyboards, bells, and ghostly chanting.
Appreciating any of this requires getting past Maus’ reverb-drenched vocals. The exaggerated echoing and obscured lyrics are a big part of his music’s melancholic detachment, and while his muddled muttering can be enigmatic or irritating, the record strikes an enchanting contrast of dark atmosphere and catchy, memorable hooks. Tracks such as “Quantum Leap” and “Head For The Country” use bright synths and pulsing basslines to gain momentum, until haunting choruses fade off into an aural murk. With just a touch of enunciation and a dash of well-placed bombast, these songs could be bona fide hits.