Ariel Pink’s always been a crude provocateur, but he’s only lately found himself on a stage large enough to prove it. Following the breakthrough success of 2010’s brilliant Before Today, his first album bolstered by a crack backing band and budget, the decade-plus veteran of outsider pop has explored plenty of ways to test the patience of his newfound crowd. One of his much-reported tour meltdowns last summer found him slinging a skein of slurs and stereotypes at bewildered fans in Mexico. This year’s 2.3-hour gauntlet of patchy collabs with home-recording godfather and kindred weirdo R. Stevie Moore received scant press, its billing as Ku Klux Glam perhaps partly responsible. And recent interviews to promote his new album have included a mockery of gay marriage, Pink asking when the pedos and necrophiliacs of the world might get their day in the matrimonial sun. At 34, the adult child’s antics of late have called to mind an Odd Future brand management brainstorm gone terribly awry.
Mature Themes lives up to what’s promised on the tin, but only relatively so. There’s nothing on this album to match any of Pink’s recent shenanigans, but it’s clear from the third bar that he’s trolling here, too. Non-sequitur Dadaisms like “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs,” nonsensical nods to Dr. Mario and North Korea, and a reenactment of a stringently specific order at a sausage stand are all par for course. There’s hardly anything coherent to be gleaned from the enclosed lyric sheet, but sardonic allusions to Pink’s post-Before fame seem to be a common thread: an early refrain urges the listener to “step into my timewarp,” perhaps a wink at every last critic to belabor Pink’s “retrolicious” songwriting style after Simon Reynolds confronted it in last year’s ubiquitous Retromania. And the Bowie-cum-farfisa opener “Kinski Assassin” revolves around the knock-knock couplet, “Who sunk my battleship?/ I sunk my battleship!” as though Pink is every bit aware of how thoroughly the ensuing album stands to alienate the windfall following he’s recently amassed.
To wit, the majority of the tunes here are strange and ingrown strays. The trundling “Schnitzel Boogie,” ‘80s Afropop keyboard test “Pink Slime,” and ribald cock-rocker “Is This The Best Spot?” feel particularly withdrawn and one-track minded following the proggy kaleidoscopes found on Before Today, easier to imagine among some of the less memorable cuts on old homebrews like Lover Boy or Underground. (“Live It Up” is, in fact, a revision of “Real Bad Liar,” from an obscure tour-only CD-R.) These songs work fine as relatively hi-fi and expertly played retreads of familiar Graffiti standbys, but they do little else to distinguish themselves from Pink’s more adventurous past.
It’s the two genuinely full-grown singles that introduced Mature Themes — perhaps as a feint — that reflect the record’s real strengths. “Only In My Dreams” is a Byrds Boys pastiche de force that sees Pink, some 200 abstractions into his career, making an auspicious debut as a traditional songwriter. And while a faithful facsimile of some forgotten blue-eyed soul might make a perverse choice for first single and album closer both, the Dâm-Funk-assisted remake of Donnie & Joe Emerson’s 1979 ballad “Baby” achieves a sultry subtlety unlike anything in Haunted Graffiti history. “Mature Themes” is similarly cogent and exceptional, Pink yearning sincerely for an adult relationship amid ethereal ahh-beds and autumnal progressions that never once threaten to digress or subvert themselves. The euthanasial “Nostradamus & Me,” somewhere between Neu!’s ambient works and House Arrest’s “Oceans of Weep,” is a perfectly measured soporific, while the macabre post-punk grooves and feedback blasts of “Early Birds of Babylon” are well tempered by a delightfully playful compound meter chorus. Though variegated, these songs all succeed by training Pink’s typically schizoid instincts and multi-personality songforms into more focused and singular gestures. Having charmingly codified his rare knack for reconciling wildly disparate tropes and structures on the crystalline Before Today, Pink’s shift towards a mastery of convention may well be the best move he can make: it belies his greatest talent, but reveals one previously unknown. Who knew Pink could win even when playing by the rules?
It’s an exciting revelation, and one he could have best spent the remainder of the album exploring. The more asocial and regressive oddments that instead claim much of its runtime are by no means bad, but the graphic sex gags and extended sausage breaks feel particularly indulgent when placed between some of the most effective songs Haunted Graffiti’s yet recorded. As with his faux-supremacist sense of humor elsewhere, one’s left wishing Pink’s musical provocations on Mature Themes were just a little more sophisticated.