Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
out on 8.21
Full disclosure: Back in December of 2010, PMA asked me to compile a list of that year’s best albums. It was a year filled with big, important releases and for my number-one pick I could have gone with a number of obvious choices – Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, the National’s High Violet (which PMA named its top album). Instead I chose Before Today, the breakthrough record by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. I admit it was a self-conscious, symbolic, trickster vote on my part, in the spirit of Ariel Pink himself. But my primary motive was aesthetic. Before Today remains a densely packed, melodically breathtaking gem. When the complex calculus of vote tallying was done, Before Today landed at #33 on PMA’s final list, ahead of worthy albums by Gorillaz, Spoon, and Brian Eno. That #33 spot? I took it as a modest victory.
Further disclosure: I’m a weirdo, and Ariel Pink is a weirdo’s weirdo. His lyrics are often nonsensical; his vocal delivery ranges from a deadpan lower register to an impish falsetto and can approach clownishness. But I’m also a sucker for melody and Pink’s aptitude is striking. For Pink, bygone genres and styles are merely languages in which he is fluent. Euphony is his accent. His knockouts reinterpret the past with such a degree of expertise they obliterate quibbles over what is pastiche and what is authentic. Take Before Today’s masterpiece of early-80s yacht rock “Round and Round.” After an anxious bass verse, the song’s glorious payoff arrives like a trumpet blast, soaring atop tidal waves of harmonies. For me, only one pop chorus has been better in the last decade: Kelly Clarkson’s exuberant “Since U Been Gone.” That a rascal like Ariel Pink could pull off such a feat is astounding.
Disclosures and ovations aside, Mature Themes, the new album by Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, matches Before Today’s eclecticism and even approaches its predecessor’s woozy heights. But thanks to some serious missteps, particularly its slack and cumbersome final third, Mature Themes ultimately falls short. The seven-minute-plus “Nostradamus & Me” is largely to blame. Pink’s attempts at sprawling atmospherics only spotlight his knack with a sharp hook. “Nostradamus & Me,” a lazy cannabis cough, a puff of reverberated psychedelia, drifts nowhere fast. “Farewell American Primitive” and the “Live It Up” are better by comparison, but only just so. The former is rescued by its chiming instrumentation, the latter by its sprightliness. Despite these paltry virtues, both are equally unimaginative and tedious (a word Pink rarely conjures). Sometimes Pink’s bizarro tendencies can even exasperate a sympathetic listener like me. “Schnitzel Boogie” is a plodding goof that might have been charming as a brief interlude; over the course of its four-and-a-half minutes, it becomes unbearable.
And yet much of Mature Themes finds Pink at his oddball finest. On tracks such as “Early Birds of Babylon,” where whirlwinds of guitar noise reach one exhilarating apex after another, and “Driftwood,” with its vibraphone arpeggios, descending and mysterious, the strange becomes the sublime. The album’s sunburst standouts “Only In My Dreams” and its title track recall the joy of Before Today’s “Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Bright Light, Blue Skies.” “Symphony of the Nymph” is a strutting epic of twirling synths and harmonies, which shifts abruptly from hi- to lo-fi and back. The album concludes with a cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s soul jam “Baby.” Pink and guest vocalist Dâm-Funk add little to the original, but the song is so good, and Mature Themes so in need of a little unironic sensuality, that complaints can be tossed aside. “Baby” enters at the right place and the right time. Ariel Pink at least deserves credit for his curatorial skills.
Ariel Pink’s ramshackle, comical approach has antecedents in the music of Warren Zevon, Frank Zappa, and most obviously, pre-Odelay Beck. Mature Themes reveals he is uninterested in taming his eccentricity (unlike, say, post-Odelay Beck). Rather than being a further step toward sophistication, Mature Themes is a mess of rubbish and riches – noisy, maddening, ecstatic, lumbering, uncompromisingly odd, and unabashedly pretty. Ariel Pink may just never grow up and get serious. Given the worst of Mature Themes, that's a pity. Given its best, that's a relief. [B-]