The Writing’s On The Wall, But Who Knows What It Means
By Eric Webb
Flavorwire, in its recent rundown of “10 Indie Musicians Who Would Make Great Pop Stars,” placed Ariel Pink (and presumably his Haunted Graffiti, unless we’ve got a lo-fi Diana Ross situation here) on the top of the list. This is, to phrase it in highly technical terms, dumb.
Pink gets pop structure. That’s not in question. His songs look at the AM radio hits of yesteryear through a lens of experimentation, sexual themes and being crazytown bananapants. So, were Mr. Pink to apply his technical know-how to churning out radio hits-with-hooks in the vein of U2 or Coldplay or what-have-you, I’m sure he could do that.
However, even considering that possibility misses a key appeal of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: oddity.
Mature Themes takes a full plunge into psychedelia more profoundly than 2010’s Before Today. The opening “Kinski Assassin” bursts through riding the sounds of the Summer of Love, sounding not unlike The Byrds on a particularly crazy trip. Still, the absurdist lyrics (“Suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs”) and discomforting, droning vocals obscure an honestly catchy tune. I imagine that listening to this song is what mescaline is like.
While on the topic of testicle bombs, Mature Themes may win the award for Most Literally Named Album of 2012, right behind Kidz Bop 22. The Buggles-esque second song is called “Is This The Best Spot,” and I don’t want to read too much into things, but it features an anthemic cry of “G-spot, H-bomb, let’s go!” So, there’s that. Mature Themes drops esoteric carnal reference after esoteric carnal reference. It’s unclear if Pink aims to be puerile, if he’s engaging in some sort of deconstructionist examination of sexuality, or if it’s both. The song “Mature Themes” recalls Fleetwood Mac or Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind,” sunny and toe-tapping, but also concerned with the kind of subject matter the title of the song and the album would imply.
“Symphony of the Nymph” leads into its nonsensical ramblings of nymphomaniacs, lesbians and Dr. Mario with a killer Casio keyboard riff and the kind of faux-chintzy veneer that bands like Miniature Tigers deal in. With its eerie, sparse electronic embellishments, “Nymph” sounds like an ’80s kid show theme song mixed with Kanye West’s “Welcome to Heartbreak.” It also features plenty of gleefully profane lines like “I don’t mean to burn any bridges, but I can’t get enough of these bitches.”
Pink’s deft manipulation of song styles is on more conventional display on two of the end tracks, “Nostradamus and Me” and “Baby.” The former is a slice of ambient chillwave and the latter a solid, straight up R&B cover. Tracks like these make the band’s trickster mentality all the more defiant; why be commercial when you can write a song called “Schnitzel Boogie”? That number, a warped polka seemingly recorded through a drive-thru speaker, makes no time for pop sensibilities. If you can let go of that and embrace the absurd, it’s one of the more enjoyable songs on Mature Themes. Then there’s “Only In My Dreams,” a shimmering piece of throwback pop that seems innocuous enough for a lead single.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti doesn’t always sell the schtick: “Driftwood” evokes a toy xylophone falling down a staircase, and “Early Birds of Babylon” is a fine ditty if you’re in the mood (precisely, the mood to offer a blood sacrifice to an ancient elder god in an obscene occult ritual). Around the time Mature Themes gets to “Farewell American Primitive,” the novelty wears thin.
Altogether, Mature Themes is fascinating. It’s rare to find something so self-consciously strange that’s actually entertaining, but Pink and his phantom-possessed street art crew are the gold standard for such things. Nothing on Mature Themes will fit easily on a playlist, but it’s an album that rewards those brave enough to tackle a giant musical question mark.
(2) “Is This The Best Spot?”
(7) “Schnitzel Boogie”
(8) “Symphony of the Nymph”
(12) “Nostradamus & Me”