“It’s difficult to know how to take it really, are you being condescended to? Are you in on the joke? Is it a joke? It’s pleasant to listen to anyway, but its purpose – if it has one – is difficult to divine.” – Ian Maleney on Mature Themes, the new album from Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.
You know that feeling where some friends of yours are laughing, slightly nervously, and you’re not sure what they’re laughing at? They seem like they’re not even sure why they’re laughing. It’s all a little uncomfortable and whatever the joke/non-joke might be, you’re not getting it. That’s the feeling I get every time I put on Mature Themes.
In the past, the thing that has always stuck out, the understandable attraction, of Ariel Pink‘s work has been the hue of the world his music created. For a long time, he was the ultimate in bedroom musicians, adventuring towards a totally unique manifestation of personal thoughts and imaginative flights of fancy. His world was laid out and you, as a listener, could join in or not. If you suspended your disbelief and went along with him, it was a compelling journey through memory and association, taking in AM radio and battered 45s, haunting old melodies resurrected out of context to tickle the back of your brain, developing an itch that became more and more satisfying to scratch.
Before Today in 2010 changed the frame. Where the mouth drums and tape hiss of The Doldrums and Worn Copy obscured the references and gave you space (intentionally or not) to plot your own path through its haze, Pink’s 4AD debut presented a reflection of the past, a near-perfect replica of various cultural touchstones familiar to anyone over a certain age. Much steadier in its grip on reality than previous releases, it was also less imaginative and less thrilling. It was also a lot easier to sing along to.
Mature Themes uncomfortably attempts blend both of these tendencies. It opens with ‘Kinski Assassins‘, a kitschy, repetitive riff on a pair of melodies which represents a cleaner, clearer version of the Zappa-lite tendencies Pink has displayed in the past. ‘Who sunk my battleship?/Did I sink my battleship?‘ goes one of the main hooks. Whether the title refers to German WWII soldier-turned-celebrated actor, Klaus Kinski is unknown, while certain verses present a Dada-style cut-up non-sensibility stitched to a stupidly catchy melody. We have to assume it means something. Or maybe not. Maybe that’s the point… #post-modernism #confused
‘Mature Themes‘ and ‘Only In My Dreams‘ present the other side of the equation, a return to the classic pop song-writing seen on Before Today. The music revels in traditional 60s-style pop hallmarks, jangling Byrds-like guitars, clear hooks, and lyrics that border on parody in their simplicity. They cross that border more than once, which makes the whole endeavor seem like a joke, a show of song-writing ability for its own sake. ‘I want to talk about mature things‘ sings Pink on the title track, purposefully leaving out any actual “mature” subject matter, wishing instead only to be tall. The latter track is another homage to jangle-pop with the line ‘If at first you don’t succeed in love/dream a little dream about a girl so real” highlighting the imitative, mocking approach. It’s difficult to know how to take it really, are you being condescended to? Are you in on the joke? Is it a joke? It’s pleasant to listen to anyway, but its purpose – if it has one – is difficult to divine.
‘Driftwood‘ might be the best track on the album with its post-punk-ish atmosphere where vocals are intoned over rolling toms and an irresistible bass line. It balances dark and playful expertly, the first really successful blend of Pink’s standard ingerdients. ‘Early Birds Of Babylon‘ continues in the same vein and you begin to think maybe things are looking up. Unfortunately ‘Schnitzel Boogie‘ and ‘Symphony of the Nymph‘ are exactly as terrible as their names would suggest. More Zappa-style prankersterism, without the incisive and funny social commentary of the late master of the skit. What we get here are two utterly pointless pieces of vapid piss-take pop, devoid of anything worth talking about. The rest of the album, and especially the closing two tracks, sure doesn’t make conclusions any easier.
In the end, it’s this constant back and forth which makes Pink such a frustrating listen. One minute you think you’ve got the joke or you’re at least enjoying the sound of it, the next, it’s gone too far. The melodies throughout are properly catchy, worming their way into your brain until you’re frustrated as hell. There’s nothing you can do about it. Even if you’re not paying that much attention to them, these songs get inside you. Whether they do anything there is another thing. Satire is nothing without a target or a point that needs making and it frequently feels like these songs are pointless.
In recent years, others in Pink’s vague circle have diversified or found more solid voices; John Maus‘s impenetrably sure views on production, philosophy and politics, James Ferraro‘s rampant conceptual experimentation, Chris Owen‘s flowering as songwriting magpie in Girls. Girls’ album from last year, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, provides the most fitting counterpoint to Mature Themes in its ability to use pop music as a template, to explore its emotional resonances in high fidelity and to create something at once personal and universal out of it without resorting to irony, condescension or pastiche. On Mature Themes it feels like Pink is clumsily engaging with his idea of the world at large, the supposed world outside his head, and the manic, associative way he works his lyrics and musical references would seem to point toward the mad rush of information and short attention spans of modern life as his target. Whether Mature Themes is a reflective critique of those symptoms of modern life, or simply a product of it, is up to the listener. Whatever Pink’s point is, it is not clear.