Douglas Martin is loosely affiliated with the Kinski Assassins. Ask no more questions.
When we last left Ariel Rosenberg, he was laughing his way to the bank. After over a decade of being underrated, misunderstood, and sometimes downright loathed, he released 2010’s fascinatingly cracked Before Today and the world of indie music finally caught up to him. High on success and who knows what else, he spent the following year trying to pull his friends into the spotlight (his hero R. Stevie Moore, the still criminally undervalued Dam-Funk, and his college buddy John Maus), releasing baffling odes to 9/11, fully exploring the “androgynous rock star” look his doppelganger (and kindred soul in lyrical perversity) Kurt Cobain only flirted with, and trying to pick a fight with Tyler, the Creator (at the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival, Pink frequently referred to the music of Odd Future as “hatewave”). Turns out if anybody was going to rest on their laurels with their 4AD money, it wasn’t going to be Ariel Pink. (What up, Purity Ring.)
But even though Before Today rang true to Pink’s affinity for styles musicians of his generation are conditioned to hate, it was a red herring of his formidable discography. In places normally reserved for cheap approximations of yacht-rock coasting on chill waves, there was disco, there was butt-rock, and his trademark white-boy beatboxing was pushed far down into the mix.
Though most people who ignore Pink’s pre-Before Today material would call Mature Themes a departure from his signature style, it’s really a return-to-form. It’s every bit as bewildering as, say, House Arrest, but it benefits greatly from Pink’s exponential growth as a songwriter and musician. And unlike most bands’ new adventures in hi-fi, the clarity of his recordings make his songs even more uncomfortable.
II. DOUBLE AGENTS IN ATHENS
The album’s opening lyric: “A Kinski assassin blew a hole in my chest.”
Ariel Pink is not the kind of songwriter who shies away from graphic imagery (ahem, “Menopause Man”), but it’s usually buried along with his vocals in the mix, the kind of almost-subliminal mind trick where you listen to it and say to yourself, “Did he really just say what I thought he said? Let me rewind that.”
There are a lot of turns of phrase on “Kinski Assassin” that feel like a conversation where you hear someone saying something that sounded way more off-the-wall than what was probably already said, only to find out they said exactly what you thought they said — which makes it more disturbing. There’s talk of groping, tweaker transsexuals, sperm-headed brains, deadly fellatio, and a non-sequitur chorus of, “Who sank my battleship? I sank my battleship!” With the heavy density of such bizarre stream-of-consciousness imagery abound here, it must be noted that this track is only a second shy of three minutes long.
In prog-disco epic “Symphony of the Nymph,” Pink hopscotches across gender lines while singing about a librarian with a libido almost as insatiable as his own. Elsewhere, he fires off mentions of g-spots, compulsive masturbation, an smorgasbord of bodily secretions, and– perhaps most surprisingly– old-fashioned passionate lovemaking.
III. I’M JUST A ROCK ‘N ROLLER FROM BEVERLY HILLS
While there is certainly a healthy dose of ironic distance being employed in Pink’s songwriting, his chief artistic tool is total subversion. His source material is generally regarded as “uncool” because it doesn’t add anything remotely new to the vast expanse of popular music. Songs about love and heartbreak delivered through tunes that are engineered for easy digestion end up being totally banal after your second game around the shuffleboard deck, but that’s exactly what makes Pink truly singular. He’s taking these songs– that aren’t punk songs or even another genre delivered in a rudimentary punk style, these are capital-S Songs, complete with middle-eights and breakdowns and end codas and startlingly good musicianship– and communicating his thoughts and feelings in sometimes-perplexing, sometimes-brutal ways, taking the warped mind of a GG Allin or Glen Danzig and setting it to the music of vintage Michael McDonald or Frank Zappa or Arthur Lee.
There’s much to be said about the off-center lyrics that populate Ariel Pink’s songs or the tape hiss and decay that engulfed them pre-Before Today, but much less talked about is how musically accomplished Rosenberg actually is. When Black Flag and the insurgence of Southern California punk took over as Los Angeles’ new “cool” scene, the hair-metal peddlers that came up a few years later rallied against that abrasive, dissonant sound by, you know, valuing technical proficiency at playing their instruments.
Then punk/college-rock/alternative/indie took over again and put the power in the hands of the untrained again. While only occasionally referencing those bands who got chased off the Billboard charts and back into Sunset Strip dives, Ariel Pink and Haunted Graffiti absolutely adopts their attention to craft and songwriting ability.
“Is This the Best Spot?” starts off with him adopting an addictive fake Eastern European accent over a descending melody coated in fuzz– and then quickly falls into a dizzy vertigo of keyboard arpeggios. There are myriad symphonic harmonies, there’s a 7 ¼-minute ambient number titled “Nostradamus and Me,“ there are sound effects. (Spoiler Alert: There are horse sounds in “Symphony of the Nymph,” and they make an already great song totally unimpeachable.)
Pink packs enough incredible moments into his songs to sneak in a sly Michael Jackson reference in “Farewell American” without much notice. Throughout his career, Pink has adeptly switched tempos and exhibited flashy moves, much to the chagrin of the legions and legions of fans who see him as some idiot savant. That’s what always happens to artists who color outside the lines, even if their crayons trail off into something legitimately bizarre.
IV. LETTUCE, ONIONS, AND TOMATOES ONLY
I don’t know exactly what you want me to say about “Schnitzel Boogie.” Is it an advertisement for the best food to wash down with Manischewitz? Is it an incredibly fucking stupid song? Is it an epic masterpiece? It’s actually all three of these things.
Early on in the Ariel Pink is a Visionary World Tour, Alan Palomo, head chief of Neon Indian, rhapsodized about Rosenberg’s artistry, anointing him the Godfather of Chillwave. Aside from being dubbed the accidental inventor of a genre poised to destroy the world one American Apparel at a time, it’s easy to hear in Neon Indian how much Pink’s love of self-parody has seeped into the work of the new poster boy for vintage synthesizers.
“Schnitzel Boogie,” probably more so than any Ariel Pink track yet, has that same sense of self-parody on full-tilt. It arrives with an irresistible melody built to last through any Safeway food run, a spoken-word breakdown featuring a drive-thru cashier really trying to up-sell the cheese, and a heroic end coda rising up to the heavens. After the novelty of the first listen, you’re forced to realize that this song is at once utterly inane and a stroke of pure genius.
I genuinely do not understand why anyone would not love this song.
V. I WANNA TALK ABOUT MATURE THEMES
While Mature Themes is more sonically related to the rest of Pink’s work than Before Today, lyrically, the album is a vast departure in spots. Rosenberg assuredly still keeps his warped mind unchecked for most of the album, but certain songs have a far more romantic aura than usual. The album’s title-track is a breezy, springtime jaunt through fidelity, the eagerness to please, and optimistic expectations. “Only in My Dreams” eschews his subversive tactics to deliver a soft-rock tune as much in emotional tenor as musical tone. And for all the lovers out there, he saves the best for last.
Pink decides to play it straight on his cover of Donny and Joe Emerson’s 1979 sleeper “Baby,” inviting Dam-Funk to duet with him over the smooth keys and bassline perfect for hipsters who unironically enjoy dancing with their significant others under dimmed lights. While Pink’s naked sincerity is refreshing, Funk steals the show here, offering his magnetic charisma as he croons, “shoo-bop, shoo-bops,” and guides the track to its close with a sensuality heretofore completely missing on an Ariel Pink record.
In the rock world, the word “maturity” is often synonymous with “boring.” Settling down never provokes the same euphoria as an adventure, but in the messed-up world of Ariel Pink, pressing the brakes and (occasionally) seeing the beauty around you is a wild gambit. As an artist who used to get his thrills from crafting transgressive images, it was risky to lay his softer side down to tape. But he succeeds profoundly. Mature Themes is the best record of his decade-plus-long career. It’s cracked, shocking, and often ridiculous, but it’s also a complete stunner from top-to-bottom, the document of one of music’s most forward-thinking, dynamic artists finally catching up with himself.