There are plenty of reasons to be mesmerized by a songwriter like Ariel Pink. His songs can be confounding and frustrating, deeply evocative, sarcastic, seriously funny–and all of it, even when his intentions aren’t always clear, is delivered with the poetic proficiency and of a writer whose catalog of great and completely idiosyncratic songs is in the dozens. I suppose what’s most unusual about Pink, to my mind at least, is that it’s never been clear whether he needed an audience to do what he was doing. After all, it’s worth remembering the half-decade or so he spent producing dense, murky, if also brilliant, lo-fi jams in a home studio that preceded his ever having gained any audience whatsoever. But now, having reached the level of outsider luminaries, Pink and his band seem to have been put in a strange position.
Enter Mature Themes, the follow-up to Before Today, a fantastic, coming-out-party album whose lead single and unexpected studio gloss made Pink’s music accessible to no small number of new fans. Themes, coming on the heels of that success, manages an almost unheard of balancing act–it’s almost weird enough to feel purposefully alienating, and yet it feels so intrinsically connected to Today, that it actually feels like a logical progression, musically speaking. It feels like a reversion into Pinkness without feeling like a retreat. It’s pyschological, full of his typical oddball shit, occasionally impenetrable. But it’s also big and ambitious and beautifully constructed. In some ways it could just as easily have been made for an audience of one. But for the rest of us, it’s a pretty fascinating ride.
Download: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Baby”
As far as the album’s more aggressively strange side, it’s worth noting. It shouldn’t be understated. It’s a part of Pink’s DNA, and there’s no shortage here–goofy voices, screeching background noise, absurdist jokes that go over a lot of heads, including mine plenty of the time. But it’s never been the case, even on the lowest-fi, grungiest Doldrums-era stuff, that Pink’s songs were devoid of pop craft. On the contrary, he’s basically a great pop songwriter caught in a time warp, plumbing familiar sounds and refracting them in clever, unexpected ways, leaving them almost completely detached from context, and us equal parts disoriented and amused. In almost all respects, Pink resembles no one here quite so much as Frank Zappa.
Mature Themes finds Pink dipping into everything from folky late-’60s, Byrds-style jangle to dark, eerie disco-funk to brash, powerful prog. “Kinski Assassin” is pure ridiculousness wrapped up in Jim Morrison bravado and Doors organs, while “Schnitzel Boogie” marches a fuzz-box, sunny riff straight into late-Beatles non-sequitur territory. Elsewhere, “Nostradamus & Me” floats off into seven minutes soulful, space, with glimmering Rhodes keys creating an atmosphere that feels positively boundless. There’s always been something unclassifiable about the peculiar place his music occupies, but now more than ever, with so many tracks draped in layers of shimmery analog synth, it seems he’s found a sonic space all his own.
If Before Today was more straightforward in its presentation, it still feels entirely connected to this album stylistically. The pair of albums have been touted as a departure from past work because of their studio polish, because of the scale on which they were produced. But what’s most striking about both is more the deliberate use Pink makes of the studio to create contrast–yes, some sounds or vocals come through sounding incredibly crisp. But Pink, time and again, adds layers of noise, distortion and distance, to keep songs from feeling too safe. As to his statement a few months back that the album’s sound would have almost nothing to do with his lo-fi roots, that seems to be overstating the case. But now more than ever, it’s the contributions of the band itself that flesh out these songs into vivid, high-concept, big-screen experiments.
For whatever it supposedly lacks in accessibility, Mature Themes is an absolute treasure trove of idiosyncrasy. “I’m just a rock and roller from Beverly Hills, my name is Ariel, and I’m a nympho” confesses Mr. Pink on “Symphony of the Nymph”, before diving into the revelation, “I don’t need to burn any bridges, but I can’t get enough of those bitches”. This is vintage Pink; self-implicating, funny, occasionally gender-ambiguous. “Only In My Dreams” is an ostensibly sweet-sounding song that occasionally feels tragic: “If at first you don’t succeed at love, just a dream a little dream about a girl so real”. As hopeful as it sounds on paper, parts of the song feel more like the operative word in the title is “only”. Most of Pink’s songs are onion-layered Trojan horses, and even the title of the album, Mature Themes comes with a heavy dose of irony. There are “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs”, G-spots and H-bombs, “Pink Slime” and schnitzel. “Live It Up”, a synthed-out, glitzy trip through Los Angeles nightlife destinations, could just as easily double as a sarcastic condemnation of the kind of escapist fun it feels like it’s celebrating.
And then there’s “Baby”. Rounding out all this fuzzy, off-kilter humor and chaos is a gorgeous, all-too-human moment. The original, a once-lost, recently resurfaced gem of blue-eyed ’70s soul, came via Donnie and Joe Emerson, a pair of small-town Washington teenage brothers whose starry-eyed, subtly beautiful masterpiece would remain virtually unheard until a solid 40 years later. Pink though, transforms the sleepy original into something entirely gripping and undeniably his own. It’s hard to think of a single time his voice has felt so convincingly soulful, so genuine and sensual and pained. Every detail, from the Flamingos shoo-bop shoo-bops to the whistling that fades the song out, are geared toward amplifying that strange, melancholic power at the heart of the original, that feeling of being completely in awe of someone to the point that it hurts. “Baby” is, in many senses of the word, the most straightforward song on the record. No sinister double meanings or far flung references, no dizzying changes or surrealist profanity. Just one slow-burning progression, and oooooh baby for miles around. Leave it to Pink to make teenage cheese feel like the maturest theme of all.
It’s moments like these that set Pink apart, but it’s not just that. It’s all about context, and a song like “Baby” only feels like such a crowning, satisfying payoff because of the bewildering strangeness of almost everything around it. It’s a rare songwriter that can throw a barrage of question marks and inside jokes at us, and follow them with something that feels so damn genuine and well-earned. Maybe the joke’s on us. Maybe there’s no joke at all. Who really even gives a shit? Whoever the music’s meant for, whoever it’s making fun of, or borrowing from, and however we take it in, what’s important is that albums like this one allow us to look through a strange and singular lens, to look at our warped universe through an extraordinary, peculiar set of eyes. And that seems valuable any way you look at it.