Even though I’ve been aware of him since The Doldrums — or at least since Paw Tracks reissued that release in 2004 — I’ve never quite figured out what Ariel Pink’s deal is. On one hand, he’s got a glaringly obvious acumen for sophisticated pop songcraft, something that’s becoming even more visible as he moves even deeper into the polished, professional recordings well documented on Before Today, and he’s always been the super-outsider cherished and name-checked by super-insiders. On the other, he’s an artist who’s one of those artist who can rip a hole in a slow news cycle with a bizarre stage meltdown or a strange, off-color pullquote. Though Before Today fragmented Pink’s fanbase — many still prefer the beat-up-sounding, homemade, R. Stevie Moore-informed recordings of The Doldrums and Worn Copy — and on Mature Themes, Pink fleshes out his sound even further on a batch of originals, his first new writing in five years (Before Today was composed mostly of old material, re-recorded with Pink’s taut Haunted Graffiti, a band he recruited via tryouts). As someone who sees what there is to like in both of these Ariel eras, I feel confident in saying that Mature Themes is the best thing Pink has ever done, a record full of the characteristic darkness and jarring weirdness (one song features Pink ordering at the drive thru window of a Wienerschnitzel) that earned Pink attention in the first place and inspired a legion of copycats. Ironically, you might have to listen even harder for it than ever.
On Mature Themes, Pink doesn’t doesn’t wait to get into his weird, violent imagery; “A Kinski assassin / Blew a hole in my chest,” begins “Kinski Assassin.” He doesn’t hold off, either; “My name is Ariel / And I’m a nympho,” he chants on the tongue-in-cheek “Symphony Of The Nymph.” Much of the music on Mature Themes sensibly combines the widening grab-bag of styles that Pink weaponizes, at once his take on radio pop (“Only In My Dreams“), AM radio (“Mature Themes”), polka, chillwave (which he claims he invented, “Nostradamus & Me”) weird carnival music that’s sounds like electronic version of something you’d hear at a Renaissance Festival (“Is This The Best Spot?”), but somehow, it’s never gets grating or tiresome. Nothing gets me closer to figuring it out, but that challenge is compelling, and Mature Themes, like Before Today, still conjures that kind of puzzle, even if you don’t have to imagine the shapes of the songs as much as you had to when Pink’s stuff sounded like it was recorded on a Yak Bak. With respect to “Only In My Dreams,” there’s probably nothing as engaging as Before Today’s “Round And Round” on Mature Themes. And it’s probably better off for it.
Here’s my guess on why Pink’s music works in the way it does: no matter how glossy the recordings sound, you still get that sense of damage and danger that hovers around Ariel’s songs and moods. While you’re listening to the increasingly masterful songwriting Mature Themes exists to chronicle — Pink changes keys, styles, instruments and his pants (probably) so much and so subtly that you barely even notice — there’s a blackness inside. It’s hard to visit sometimes, and kind of a difficult sell, in all honesty, to someone who hasn’t heard Pink before and has only heard of the strange, sometimes gross, things he does or says. But once you begin to engage the shadow, it’s hard to stop trying.
Mature Themes is out 8/21 on 4AD.