I have a friend who throws the word genius around like she’s throwing bread at ducks. Everyone’s a goddamn genius. Tom Yorke, Gary Wilson, the Of Montreal dude, geniuses, all. With that many geniuses running around it’s a miracle we’ve haven’t wiped out cancer and the GOP. I’m much more cautious about applying that label to people, but when it comes to Ariel Pink, I’m considering slapping one on. Ariel Pink, born Ariel Rosenberg, is what music critics like to call an outsider artist, one of those loons who can’t help wandering beyond the pale of cultural acceptability. What separates an Ariel Pink from a Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston (both of whom are geniuses, according to my friend) is the level of sophistication at which he is operating.
It is now widely known how Animal Collective introduced Mr. Pink to the world when their Paw Tracks label released The Doldrums in 2003, an album which he had recorded on his own in 1999. It was not until 2010’s Before Today, which features his band Haunted Graffiti, that Mr. Pink truly broke through into our insider world. Ariel Pink and his band attack all musical definitions: definitions of genre, timbre, song structure (i.e. verse vs. chorus), but they do so always within a pop context. This isn’t John Cage, it’s a whirlwind of the old and the new confounding your expectations at every checkpoint that makes many of Mr. Pink’s peers seem positively reactionary by comparison. Mature Themes is only the latest entry in an oeuvre that collectively deconstructs our assumptions about music.
“Kinski Assassin,” the opening track on Mature Themes, evokes the world-weary wanderlust of Bowie’s Lodger both lyrically and in the chameleonic Mr. Pink’s vocalizations, in which he trades off ascending melodies with guitars and keys; however, like Mr. Zappa and Ween, Mr. Pink enjoys undercutting the complexity of his music with absurdly sexual and scatological content such as, she-males hopped up on meth and testicle bombs, as he puts it. The next song, “Is This The Best Spot?” makes the G-spot a metaphor for an atomic ground zero, or perhaps vice versa, over a fucked-up electro-dance track that sounds like it was played at the Continental in Buffalo in 1980. And suddenly we are thrust into two of the album’s highlights, first the title track and then the first single from the album, “Only In My Dreams,” two beautiful, beautiful pop songs that lyrically play upon the respective unrealities of the singer’s personae – “I’m not real, I won’t call you – ” – but in the most exalted possible manner, with the purest pop sensibilities. I’m hearing the Zombies, the Byrds, and the whole lo-fi spectrum of American AM radio musicalia – it’s all here.
There’s no true genre I could assign to this record. Expansive electric freak synth rock, perhaps? Like the lord of phagocytes it ingests all definitions: what is a chorus or a verse? What’s serious and what’s not? What’s making that sound? Even on songs like “Schnitzel Boogie” and “Symphony of the Nymph,” in which an excess of the mundane and comically crude threaten to tip the whole boat over, the music is so damn interesting it works perfectly. Mr. Pink has a splendid ear for chord progressions and melodies; he’s easily the best songwriter working in popular music today. I don’t know why anyone calls these songs inaccessible or challenging – it’s far more challenging to sit through a more conventional record (fill in your favorite target here) when such succulent creativities such as those on Mature Themes are available! Other highlights on the record include the long ambient piece “Nostradamus and Me –” it’s long, repetitive, and cryptic, all of which register highly on the Kelloggometer – and the sole cover, an earnest rendition of the Emerson Brothers’ “Baby” (the original being found on the brother’s record Dreamin’ Wild, enjoying a well-deserved resurgence). This is one record we’ll be listening to for decades, genius or no. I’m thinking definitely maybe on the genius thing. Table for two, please.