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Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, ‘Mature Themes’ (4AD)

Ariel Pink / Photo by Maia Harms
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Label: 4AD

Pop’s wiggliest freaks are always its hungriest. Brian Wilson implored you to eat all your vegetables; Paul McCartney whipped up a confection called a Monkberry Moon Delight; Ween wanted a pork roll egg and cheese; Frank Zappa burned weenie sandwiches, made lumpy gravy, sang about jelly roll gum drops, and warned you about eating the yellow snow. When it was snack time for Captain Beefheart, his icebox revealed “Cheese in the corner with a mile-long beard / Bacon blue, bread dog-eared,” to which he retorted, “I may be hungry, but I sure ain’t weird.”

Which maybe explains why Ariel Pink can be heard chewing wiener schnitzel on his bouncy new “Schnitzel Boogie,” uttering that breaded cutlet’s name some 67 times over the course of the song and placing the best drive-thru order since Ween’s “Pollo Asado.” Yes, on Mature Themes, he’s at his weirdest, hungriest, and most personable, in his misanthropic way, after a decade spent as both the 21st century’s idiot brother and idiot savant, the latter if only to a select few who huffed the Muppet-phetamine pop of such home-recorded opuses as The Doldrums, Lover Boy, and House Arrest, inspiring various freaks to start their own projects: Neon Indian, Girls, DâM-FunK, Nite Jewel, MGMT, Washed Out and more. Across eight other self-released spumes that documented the Beverly-Hills-teen-turned-Crenshaw-dropout’s descent into the bowels of home-taping madness, he suddenly re-emerged in 2010 and signed to 4AD for the breakout Before Today, backed by a real band rather than multiple Ariels. The smog lifted, his latent ’70s AOR pop chops were clearer than a Scientologist, most evidently on “Round and Round,” a seemingly facile pop number about pop itself. Ariel Pink was the beat-boxing class clown turned clown prince, a lip-smacking Joker sneaking his unlikely hit amid smashes from such “serious” acts as Kanye West, James Murphy, Vampire Weekend, and the Arcade Fire on year-end charts.

You hear his lip-smacking beats loud and clear on Mature Themes, though, his infamous mouth-drums replacing drummer Aaron Sperske and augmented by producer Cole M.G.N. (a former Haunted Graffiti guitarist and current Beck engineer), giving the already rubbery music here even more mutability and spit (and a recent lawsuit). While Before Today proved that Pink and his cohorts could tighten up into a tough garage rock act with earworm-y pop jams if need be, they’ve dropped any such pretense here and instead get as weird as they wanna be. On the disorienting organ whorl of opener “Kinski Assassin,” the music dilates and tightens around Pink as he croons such seeming inanities as “I sunk my battleship” and “I will always have Paris”; he then shoehorns Klaus Kinski, Sigmund Freud, shemales hopped up on meth, and “polymonogamasturbators” into the song. Oh, and “yer moms.”

But just when it seems that he’ll only be spastic and weird for weirdness’ sake, he turns into the angelic Brylcreemed choirboy who solemnly devotes himself to thee on the gently strummed title track. What with its effervescent harmonies and Byrdsian guitar jangle, “Only in My Dreams” also finds Pink at his most winsome and endearing, even as a tactile sense of melancholia and wistfulness permeates. And “Baby” strikes the perfect balance between innocence and the precipice of loss, a sincere cover of obscure brotherly duo Donnie & Joe Emerson dating from 1979, and transformed by Pink and fellow Angeleno DâM-FunK into as blue-eyed and heart-sleeved a soul song as they come.

And then that hungry weirdo returns: He croaks in Spanish on “Pink Slime,” gobbling up a dinner of the titular substance, plus Pasta e fagioli, rib eye, and pork rinds. “Early Birds of Babylon” has a driving dub beat that gets even inkier when Ariel starts deadpanning about satanic spies; “Living It Up” has its infomercial synth line transmogrify into Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” while Pink chitters about the ritzy Chateau Marmont. But the album’s weirdest dish is served on “Symphony of the Nymph.” Minimal-wave synths wheeze, a horse whinnies, and a whip cracks, all while Ariel alludes to the Beatles and strikes a Teen Goth pose, singing about nymphos at the discotheque and barrio colonoscopist Dr. Mario (his father, it turns out) before admitting, “I’m just a rock’n’roller from Beverly Hills.” He then adds, “I’m also a nympho.”

It’s as preposterous as singing about schnitzel and suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs, but the pink-slime pop of Mature Themes is made to epoxy itself to your ears for days on end. But then it hits you: Ariel Pink’s not stuck in your head. You’re stuck in his. And it’s a muggy, mucky place to be. Or, as he sings on “Farewell American Primitive” as he waves goodbye to the U.S.A., “Hello, Guantanamo Bay.”