Last night — or more accurately very early this morning — Ariel Pink performed the live debut of his upcoming double album pom pom. It was an exciting night, not just because of how good the album is, but because you never really know what to expect with this guy. The Ariel Pink on recordings and the Ariel Pink in live shows are very different beasts; the quality of his albums is irrelevant if he’s playing a set so chaotic it borders on unlistenable. I’ve seen those sets in the past and they’re awful, but I’ve also seen shows at which Pink connects. In those moments he’s a force of nature. I’ve written about a couple of those before. And yet, what Ariel Pink did last night was unlike anything I’ve seen from him.
That’s due to a lot of factors. The band that people assumed was dismissed when he dropped the “Haunted Graffiti” is still there (for what it’s worth, that name had nothing to do with his backing band, and it was present even in Pink’s early solo days), but he’s brought in some additions. Jorge Elbrecht, who helped bring us last year’s “Hang On To Life” and “No Real Friend” (Scott’s favorite song of 2013), helps flesh out the songs. It’s also a pleasure to see the return of Tim Koh’s smooth bass playing. There are plenty of other bizarre characters whom I’m sure we’ll all get to know very well as the tour progresses, and they all work together on stage to build up a complete sensory overload.
Then there are the new songs, played here for the first time. I think Pink murmured an apology or some comment about how they would only be playing new stuff, but not a single person I saw seemed disappointed by the prospect of not hearing “Round And Round.” The hour-plus show (which started 90 minutes late) was a perpetual mosh pit, and after an introductory cover of “She’s Gone” by the Dovers (which is actually so old in Pink’s catalog that it might as well have been new), the band launched into “Plastic Rain Coats In The Pig Parade,” a song that actually sounds even more absurd and silly and fun than the title implies. Pink sang that one through a megaphone, a prop to which he returned throughout the night either to sing out of or just occasionally set off its siren. From there the songs flew all over the spectrum. A silly surf-rock song about nude beach parties (“Nude Beach A Go Go”), glammed-out metal (“Four Shadows”), a punk ode to “White Freckles.” We also got “Dinosaur Carebear,” a tune that features a baffling, oompah-filled interlude that could soundtrack several clowns spilling out of a tiny car. But that only scratches the surface. The center of the set brought the back-to-back performances of first single “Put Your Number In My Phone” and “One Summer Night,” songs so lush you can feel them on your skin.
The best part of the entire performance, though, was split between two tracks. There was “Black Ballerina” in which lurching lounge music soundtracked Pink and an audience member acting out dialogue about a boy reluctantly seeing a stripper. It’s sleazy and gross and tastelessly funny — John Waters would be proud. At almost the complete opposite side of the spectrum came the final song of the night, “Sexual Athletics” which began with a throbbing porn-groove as Pink crowns himself “The Sex King” and seems to build to a peak of bad taste. It never comes because the song abruptly bottoms out to reveal a delicate melody before Pink reenters with a vulnerable coo, revealing all he’s ever really wanted in life is a girlfriend. The song only blossoms from there into something even more innocent and pristine.
But it’s not as if that finale provided some real answer to this whole puzzle. Take away the reverent crowd (which included Sky Ferreira, Mac DeMarco, and members of Diiv), the fantastic band, and the songs — it comes down to him. The trashy sex anthem feels as tongue-in-cheek as the eventual shy admission to love on “Sexual Athletics,” or as unreal as his transformation into “The Frog Prince” during the Kim Fowley-inspired “Exile On Frog Street.” From his initial charge on stage to his final shout of “POM POM!” before leaving, it’s all part of the same scattered jumble that has always made him so provoking. It was Ariel Pink, unfiltered, as if the pretend rock star he dreamed up in his early recordings finally ascended to reality, entirely on his own terms. Last night announced that Ariel Pink has never sounded stronger or more profound.
pom pom is out 11/18 via 4AD.
[Main photo gallery by Wagz2it. Videos and setlist photo by Stereogum reader Joey Garza.]