I mean this in the nicest possible way when I say that Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, also known as Ariel Pink, is one weird cat. Or his brand of avant-bizarre pop music makes him seem that way. Last year, when his early independently-released solo albums Worn Copy, The Doldrums and House Arrest re-emerged in record stores on vinyl, I scored copies of all three and spent at least one summer’s evening on the balcony of my apartment, beer in hand, taking in the brave new waves that were emanating from my stereo. Listening to those three albums was a little like dialing in a radio station from another planet: there was a hissy low-fidelity murk to much of the recordings, making them seem beyond the reach of one’s fingertips, and yet there were moments of crystalline pop sensibility, with songs that practically leapt out of the speakers and made friends with your lap. It was a rather bizarre feeling, one of varying polarities that threw one a bit off kilter.
Of course, the majority of those who are familiar with Mr. Pink come to his music via his first proper band album with his band Haunted Graffiti, 2010’s Before Today, a record that was a real smorgasbord of music styles ranging from ‘60s psychedelica to ‘70s prog and Bowie-esque glam rock to ‘80s-style synth pop. It was a ragged affair, but the songs themselves were generally extremely memorable — regardless if Pink was performing an original song or was covering obscure Ethiopian music (“Reminiscences”), obscure ‘60s rock (“Bright Lit Blue Skies”) or riffling through obscure ‘80s pop (“Beverly Kills” is built upon an Ago track from 1982). With songs that were so consistently hooky, you had to naturally wonder how on earth Pink would follow up that critically lauded effort — Before Today wound up on many a best-of 2010 list and “Round and Round” was Pitchfork’s No. 1 song of the year. (The song would even go on to be rather famously covered by a group of schoolkids.)
Well, it turns out that Mature Themes isn’t really a follow-up, per se: it actually feels like a prequel, with some songs covered up with a healthy layer of gauze. In fact, Ariel told SPIN that Mature Themes was the album he “wanted to make back when I made Before Today, but couldn’t due to pressures and different factors.” There is some connective tissue to Before Today — like that album, Mature Themes features a cover. In this instance, Mature Themes features a reportedly faithful version of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s 1979 blue-eyed soul song “Baby” with funk producer/DJ Dâm-Funk on vocals. Yet, Mature Themes ultimately feels like it could have followed the progression of solo albums that Pink recorded for Paw Tracks. In fact, in my iTunes folder, Mature Themes nestles quite nicely between Before Today and my MP3s for Worn Copy, which turns out to be a rather nice bit of serendipity because when the final notes of Mature Theme’s “Baby” gives way to Worn Copy’s “Trepanated Earth”, it seems fitting, like two like pieces of a jigsaw sliding and locking into place. Mature Themes is clearly meant to evoke the randomness and slinky nature of Pink’s earlier material, perhaps with just a bigger recording budget, while keeping attuned to the pop-related flotsam and jetsam of Before Today. Now, Pink has said, “There are definitely not any links to my lo-fi origins,” but I’d like to call him out on that. Mature Themes is definitely a throwback in many ways, and it seems like Pink is doing some damage control before the album’s release to not dissuade fans from buying the album, expecting to hear another Before Today.
Mature Themes is an album that practically marinades in pop culture, both well-known and almost forgotten. Title track “Kinski Assassin” references a quote from both the movie Casablanca and inverts a popular exclamation players would say during a round of the ‘60s board game Battleship, which, of course, and rather tragically, was made into a recent Hollywood movie. Elsewhere, “Symphony of the Nymph” drops a name-check to the 1990 Nintendo puzzle game Dr. Mario. “Farewell American Primitive” obviously references the ‘50s music genre coined by guitarist John Fahey. “Pink Slime” could be a subtle reference to the ‘80s children’s TV show You Can’t Do That on Television. And, as far as food songs go, Pink builds an entire tune out of his love for schnitzel, following in the grand tradition of ‘80s California punkers the Descendants.
And titling the album Mature Themes isn’t meant to be a sly move: there really are some mature themes to the record, especially those that involves coy sexual references. Obviously, there’s an aforementioned track titled “Symphony of the Nymph” which our singer brazenly tells us how much he enjoys sex: “I’m a nympho / My name is Ariel and I’m a nympho” he casually gloats. “Is This the Best Spot?” is essentially about G-spot orgasms and, here, Pink compares them to the H-bomb. Images of masturbation, testicles, buttocks fondling along with a reference to Freud populates the lyrics for “Kinski Assassin”. On the other hand, the title track offers “I wanted to be good” as a repeated mantra during the chorus, which may make listeners wonder if Mature Themes is the product of Pink being at war with some seemingly uncontrollable urges. In other words, Mature Themes feels like a deeply personal record, one that paints on the broader canvas of popular culture at large to make some grander statements.
Which brings us to the music itself. Those looking for the genre-bending nirvana of Before Today are going to be largely disappointed with Mature Themes, as Pink has largely here pushed the songs into some pretty bizarre territory. Pink told SPIN, “I’m not making too many stylistic changes.” That is both true and false — true if he’s comparing the album to his earlier output, less so if he’s comparing it to Before Today. The songs are generally certainly catchy enough, but you would be hard pressed to find something as ear-friendly as “Round and Round” — with the possible exceptions being “Baby” or the ‘60s pop throwback gem “Only In My Dreams” (not a Debbie Gibson cover). In fact, Pink sounds closer to Bowie at many points here than he did on Before Today’s “Little Wig”, albeit a less glammed up Bowie and perhaps a Bowie entering his Thin White Duke phase.
The change in style is evident from the first notes of the organ-led opener “Kinski Assassin”, which feels in many ways to be a bit of a silly, novelty song. It turns out that Mature Themes is full of them, from the freaky nightmare polka of “Schnitzel Boogie”, which is very cottony and fuzzy in sound if not utterly silly in lyrical conceit to “Symphony of the Nymph”, which is pretty self-effacing in some respects and musically resembles the theme to a late ‘80s late night phone sex commercial, to the trance-like lullaby “Nostrodamus & Me”, which is a bit filler-ish as the track runs a good seven-and-a-half minutes.
Perhaps the best comparison one might make of Mature Themes to Before Today is to consider Todd Rundgren’s rather experimental (and potential career-suicide record) A Wizard, A True Star, which was the follow-up to his hugely poppy and successful Something/Anything? There were snatches of memorable pop ditties on Wizard, but they were overlaid by LSD-fuelled freak-outs as well as homages to soul anthems of the ‘60s. I could almost say the same thing about Mature Themes: there are elements of pure pop bliss to be had here, and there’s certainly nods to soul or pop music from previous decades (see “Baby”), but these aspects play second fiddle to Pink’s desire to engage in the more outré nature of his sound. Meanwhile, Before Today feels like a Something/Anything? with its commercial overtures and wide palette of styles.
Overall, despite the fact that Mature Themes pushes into some very abstract pop territory, it is a very compelling listen. It doesn’t quite reach Before Today’s gold standard in having song after memorable song, but it doesn’t have to. Mature Themes is a record that could have come in from another planet, which is the strongest selling point to anyone vaguely interested in music that challenges. By the time the album reaches “Baby” — which feels like a bit of an encore given its positioning in the track list, and a song that Pink clearly loves (he even contributed an audio interview to the recent reissue of the album “Baby” originally hails from) — you walk away feeling that you have experienced music, rather than be passively be moved by it. Mature Themes is a somewhat challenging record, one that makes every effort to repel and entrance listeners in equal measure. It is, after all, the album that Ariel Pink wanted to make before Before Today or simply, for that matter, before today.