While you can never be 100 percent sure about the private lives of public people, Ariel Pink is most likely a genuine weirdo. Sequined blouses aside, it’s reasonable to take material made with no real expectation of an audience as evidence of sincere artistic intent. For over a decade Pink's built one of the oddest bodies of work going, in near obscurity until very recently. Even lately, it’s been easier to focus on the sound of those recordings or the stylistic influence his otherworldly cable-access fuzz has had on home recording, than to grapple with the whacked content it was cloaking. So Pink’s rise to even fringe fame gives us a compelling test case for what ifs that have always surrounded truly eccentric musicians. What would have happened if Gary Wilson had real support? Would he have cleaned up enough to break through with a record like Pink’s 2010 pop hit Before Today? Granted that success, would he, like Pink, follow it up with a record as willfully bizarre as Mature Themes?
The skewed version of smooth that made Before Today’s singles so big isn’t entirely absent. “Only in My Dreams” is kind of vacant, but an undeniably pretty oldies radio pastiche. Even better is the Elvis Costello-on-cheap-keyboards vibe of the title track and its deeply felt emotional longing. But what to make of an album that contains both those and the snickering "colonoscopist" rhymes of “Symphony of the Nymph?" It’s the gulf between “mature themes” being written in a Criterion Collection essay and being used as a parental warning for late night Cinemax. Is this really, as stated, the album he wished Before Today could have been?
Most of the album is baffling in his old, homemade manner. On repeat listens, even things you first chuckled at come into question. Are these songs funny because they are funny, or funny because the idea that anyone ever sought to bring them into existence is funny? Call it “The ‘Fish Heads’ Conundrum.” Tracks like “Pink Slime” and “Schnitzel Boogie” definitely cross some bright border into Dr. Demento-stan. Even those can be heinously catchy. I find my thoughts drifting to schnitzel against my will. (Seriously, if anyone out there is thinking about breaking into the American market with a German fast-food chain, get your music licensing budget in order for this thing.) As you suspect Pink might be trolling you, it’s possible to appreciate the fine musicianship of his band, their tough guitars and rubber baselines. In this regard, the key song might be the album-closing cover of the Emerson Brothers’ 1979 R&B hit “Baby.” A relatively straight and legitimately soulful collaboration with DâM-FunK, it initially reminded me of the sore-thumb Billie Holiday cover on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Nigga Please—a moment of unexpected tenderness from a crazy person. But then, realizing the key lyric is the nonsensical, “Oh baby, you’re so baby,” it struck me as totally apt. Pink finally has a team of his dreams, ready to bring his insane whims to unlikely life. That doesn’t make them all good. That said, they’re seldom boring, and being specific in ludicrous ways is better than being vague in hazy ways. On balance, I’m glad he gets to keep going.