REVIEW: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - "Mature Themes"

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Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes
Label: 4AD
Release Date: Aug 20th, 2012

This is a joint review between The Decibel Tolls and We Listen For You. It took two minds to unfurl this beast.

Ariel Pink has always fostered intense dichotomization, that's to say, the old trope of brilliant vs. bullshit argument. Even his previously best work, Worn Copy, came replete with a healthy smattering of total sonic bullshit. And yet, buried under the washes of wholly demented and warped 8-track pop for the mescaline demographic was a vision. Not necessarily one you wanted to see, but a vision nonetheless. That vision is Mature Themes. That’s not to say Mature Themes is an endpoint, or that this record is what Pink’s entire musical trajectory has been leading to. Rather, it’s a record that provides a quintessential snapshot of Ariel Pink as the anti-artist.

Albums and tons of individual choices in the songwriting process are often slapped with the label of surrealism.  This is often misused when talking about abstract moments in art, with metaphors, or anything that cannot easily be defined.  The word surrealism opens a whole world of missteps when writing about music because it’s used as an opportunity to find individual meaning of abstraction based solely off projection.  Surrealism is grounded in finding the superior reality in something undefined by fact.  It’s bizarre to think of the newest offering from Ariel Pink, Mature Themes, as surrealist as so many critics have labeled it to be, because Ariel Pink is neither proposing any reality nor a desire to explore one.  Mature Themes is Dada art - arguably the first true form of dadaism in our modern “indie” world.  Mature Themes isn’t schizophrenic, as many would have you to believe; it’s anti-art, a document to point the finger at the current state of art, only to be laughably slapped with critical scores, violating the whole concept.

That the record is titled Mature Themes is both ironic and ironically not. A quick scan of the album's lyrics reveal an album saturated in approaches to human sexuality so sophomoric they make Avey Tare look like Dr. Drew, with decidedly twisted imagery sprinkled within. Yet, Mature Themes also ropes in the many facets of the enigmatic Pink into a cohesive vision. Mature Themes acts as a concept record in that regard (since it probably is), and to pull all that off successfully in a single record makes us flirt with the idea that Ariel Pink might be the closest our generation will have to a Frank Zappa figure. Sure, Zappa was a revolutionary in music composition while making fun of everyone at the same time. Pink might not be an accomplished musician of that level, but his sheer prolific output, ear for melody, clairvoyant trademark sound, and uncanny ability to consolidate 30 years of pop music -- as experienced exclusively on warped analog media -- cultivates a level of newness that demands a genius label. To accomplish this within the aforementioned framework of Dadaism in a modern sense is a triumph.

The entire record is not based on the principles of Dadaism; the art form exists solely in the presentation of the lyrics, juxtaposed against catchy hooks noding to several decades of musical influence.  With Dada’s intention to act as counter art and to often offend, Ariel Pink delivers (or doesn’t) in spades. The lyrics on Mature Themes constantly shift, destroying any possibility of structure or complete understanding, while often employing unadvisable vocal recording techniques to frustrate the listener. On “Schnitzel Boogie," the listener is subjected to almost three minutes of the same call and response, alternating from tolerable delivery to a high whine that scrapes every nerve in the body.  On “Symphony Of The Nymph," several verses drop far down into the mix to the point of inaudibility, causing listeners to adjust their volume and/or check their headphones; a version of Andy Kaufman’s color bars test card prank. Ariel Pink toys with the listener and laughs, offering the listener the choice to accept the madness/genius, get out, or analyze such moves with anger and fall right into what he’s commenting on.  

It’s within this Dada approach that we find our most fond speculations, theories, and pleasure.  Marcel Duchamp, who will forever be known as the guy who flipped a urinal upside down and called it art, focused his Dada art around “readymades”.  Readymades are exactly like they sound, pieces of art already created but presented to take on a new meaning, or in the case of Duchamp, to challenge meaning.  Ariel Pink echoes this throughout the album and leads us to our first theory on Mature Themes.  If Dada art is structured around anti-art, Mature Themes is structured around the analysis of our new Youtube culture as anti-art.  Throughout music we’ve always had sampling, which mirrors the concept of readymades, but Ariel Pink pushes this further by presenting Youtube culture in two ways.  First, mimicking the act of Youtube as a stream of disjointed content user-curated on impulse and secondly, making reference after reference to popular Youtube videos. Where most critics find Ariel Pink’s approach to lyrics schizophrenic, we’d argue they’re a direct statement about how we consume, in large amounts, clips of readymade art, one after another, with little to connect the ideas together, save for some vague sense of loose personal association or context.  We’ve all sat around with a group of friends and journeyed down the wormhole of shit that Youtube is. “Oh, that’s funny, but have you seen this?” Click. Play. Here’s a cat doing something hilarious. Here’s a dude getting hit in the junk with a tire iron. Someone else throws out another Youtube video. If one was to analyze the videos shown in such a gathering, a sense of curating against themes or an overall structure would be hard to find, just as Ariel Pink’s seemingly ADD lyrics are presented.  In this, Ariel Pink is creating anti-art that is upholding exactly the fundamentals of Dada art - to create a criticism of the time we live in by using an offensive/agitating approach that calls into question our own realities.

The second part of this is the actual use of readymades. They’re all over Mature Themes, executed to great effect and offers rewards to discerning listeners. On “Symphony Of The Nymph," Ariel uses the often sampled instrumental, “Apache," written by Jerry Lordon.  If you listen closely, the version Ariel Pink is riffing off of is the bass heavy Tommy Seebach version that gained great popularity due to the cheesy, yet brilliant, music video that became a Youtube favorite.  On “Farewell American Primitive” Ariel Pink then uses one of the actual preset AI Macintosh voices to make a quick reference to Dan Deacon and Liam Lynch’s famous Youtube skit “Drinking Out Of Cups”: “Not my chair, not my problem”. A readymade within a readymade - good lookin’ out, Ariel. This is quickly followed by an all out sample fest dropout, with Ariel performing a rendition concurrently with the Macintosh vocals “Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa, Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa, Ma Ma Coo Sa,” referencing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The use of this incoherent Michael Jackson line can be easily passed off as Ariel indulging in incoherent moments if you want to be pedestrian about it. Jackson stole the line from a singer from Douala, Manu Dibango, who wrote the line “ma ma ko, ma ma sa, ma ko ma ko sa," which in the Cameroonian language of Duala is a description of dance, the broken sentence really saying “makossa,” “I dance”.

Jackson liked the way it sounded and changed various syllables, thus creating a phrase that means nothing yet derived from a sentence that embraced one of Michael Jackson’s most important facets as an artist: dance.  Ariel Pink then samples Jackson, who stole from Dibango, and re-imagined its meaning once again because… shocker, Dibango’s original song was the “hymn” for the Cameroonian football team during the, what, 1972 Tropics Cup… ”Not My Chair, Not My Problem” ….Dan Deacon’s "Drinking Out Of Cups"…boom, bang, the moon landing was staged.  Now, was this the intention of Ariel Pink?  Probably not.  But that’s the point of Dada art and why Ariel Pink is one step ahead of everyone with Mature Themes.

Beyond the Dada nature of Mature Themes, the album also employs prodigious use of deconstructionism, absurdism, satire, and a sweeping piecemeal pastiche of three decades of pop music. Mature Themes is like The Avalanches’ Since I’ve Left You in that sense, except it’s all done by him. Ariel blows right out of the gate with “Kinski Assassin.” Ariel sarcastically muses about “who sunk my battleship,” replying “I sunk my battleship” with the same snotty cadence an 8-year-old on the playground would use calling a classmate “retarded” or “deflicted” (remember that insult? always liked that one). The sarcasm reaches critical mass when Ariel runs the scales in the chorus “fa la la la.” This song is so rich with playfulness, winks, and novel techniques (simulating the dropping of bombs in the phallic WWIII imagery “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs, bombs, bombs, kick-outs in technicolor, talk to your moms”) as well as the blatant satirizing of rock music (the studio clamor of “that’s right”). You have to appreciate Ariel Pink cluing the listener in on the bizarre carousel they’re about to get on while they still have time to defect.

“Is This The Best Spot?” once again amalgamates war imagery and sexuality (he really has it out for ex Geneva Jacuzzi, whose breakup was supposedly an inspiration for much of the album). But even before that madness, you’re treated to a yelling of “go!” 9 seconds in that’s either a direct sample of dead-on impression of Korn’s “Freak on a Leash.” The best part - the “go!” doesn’t even kick the song off, there’s still one more bar of the intro before “Is This The Best Spot?” offers up the best Devo since Devo. The title track references the tight percussion and tinty, shimmering guitars of Fleetwood Mac, while “Only In My Dreams” goes for baroque. Shades of Eno and Beach Boys are peppered throughout with a Ween veneer. “Early Birds of Babylon” offers up the punkest, most Fugazi-riffin’ anthem since Worn Copy’s “Trepanated Earth,” with a dash of the spookiness that made made Pink’s earlier, less focused work so intriguing. Pink goes topical on ammonia injected supermarket meats with “Pink Slime,” mustering up that much-missed trademark falsetto crooning on the “good I made just for you.” Despite the pranks and musical trolling, Mature Themes spat out some of Ariel Pink’s best music, period, like “Live It Up” and “Nostradamus & Me.”  

Somehow, Mature Themes demonstrates brilliance and banality concurrently, sincerity and Dada - a record so confounding that both Distonal and We Listen For You had to put on lab coats and attempt to dissect this record with our minds. In the end, Mature Themes still won, leaving us defeated with the Charlie Brown theme running in the background. This is actually a good feeling, at least when you appreciate a good musical mindfuck. When you create a fascinating album, disjointed by hanging strings of half themes and jumbled lyrics, you create critical madness, thus destroying the process of artistic critique altogether.  In this, the whole point of Mature Themes reveals itself.  If you want to dissect anti-art, go ahead, have a ball.  All it will lead to are wild projections that the artists never meant to communicate through their art.  Or is that the fun?  Is that upside down toilet art?  For us, Mature Themes is a humorous slice of anti-art that is both genius and not, the most cunning example of current songwriting, with some of the worst lyrics ever created.  What is worst?  What is best? Fuck it.  The toilet is art and Mature Themes is a success because it sent us on a long journey to the dead end of musical criticism, only to find that that the dead end of musical critique can be as fascinating, fulfilling, and more fun than any perfectly packaged album that puts it all out there for the sake of understanding.  We heard you Ariel Pink, and there are months and years to follow of fun as we willfully answer a question that was never proposed.     

Where myriad artistic schools of thought and unyielding self-aware demented satire collide with celestial violence, you’ll find Mature Themes, a record that more than any other in the past decade truly encapsulates the idea of the

11 comments:

  1. Highfalutin' way to say the guy writes goofy songs.

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  2. For "working on the review for 2.5 weeks" you didn't even post the whole review, dumb ass.

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  3. Best review I've read all year but you forgot to post the score. TROLOLOL.

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  4. I'm hoping someone will review your review so I'll understand what you thought about the album....love, Dada.

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  5. else: their arms
    swing, their legs

    swing
    from their hips their clothes

    hide, their clothes
    reveal:

    there are always secrets
    among us someone is lying down

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  6. Really liked the review, the bits that made sense. Are you guys planning on finishing it, just cuts off at the end.

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  7. I think cutting off the end was the point, no?

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  8. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!


    Miami Ram

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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