If you took Jello Biafra from his Dead Kennedys heyday and put him into a band that plays distorted and weird renditions of AM Gold sounds of the ’60s, you’d come reasonably close to what Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti are all about. While Ariel Pink never goes for the throaty yelp and ferocity that Biafra often had during those times, his strange perception of the world around him often pushes his vocals to take on different personalities and affectations. Simultaneously you’re also stuck with the challenge of trying to determine if Pink is actually being sincere or not. He cracks a lot of jokes and sings a lot of nonsense, many times in voices that sound dismissive or idiotic, yet there are also love songs that often have tenderness and genuine emotion attached to them. The many flights of fancy that suit his variety of whims at any given moment can make listening to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti records a very difficult task, if not a chore. It’s almost always fascinating if you can stand it, and on occasion he’ll hit on something truly brilliant, such as the song “Round and Round” off of 2010’s Before Today. There was little funny about that song, but its hooks cut so deep they could leave scars on your ears if you weren’t careful. Such is the dichotomy of the man and the band behind him. Nothing on their new album Mature Themes ever hits the way you might want or expect it to, but if it did then it wouldn’t be a proper APHG record. If you’re looking for the most oddly engaging record of 2012, congratulations you’ve found it.
One of the smartest things you can do when listening to Mature Themes is to surrender your will and control and simply let it take you where it wants to go. Questioning a shift in direction or a lyric will leave you frustrated time and time again, because so much of it fails to make sense. Pink is operating on his own level here, and whether you think that’s above or below your own is irrelevant. Lines like, “The bad breath of a cross-eyed goat/ Eating children for a Monday morning,” on “Driftwood” aren’t supposed to make sense (to us at least), just like how “Schnitzel Boogie” stops mid-song so Pink can place an order at a drive-thru. “Is This the Best Spot?” is like some mad science experiment gone awry, bouncing between G-spots, H-bombs and a Rocky Horror-esque reference to time warps in under two minutes. And as you sit there scratching your head about what planet the guy is living on, songs like first single “Only in My Dreams” and the title track come in with some earnest folk-pop you might have gotten from Simon & Garfunkel or The Beach Boys. Of course the bipolar and challenging nature of this album isn’t anything really new for Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. They’ve been releasing records steadily over the last 10 or so years that carry a whole lot of similarities to what they’re putting out now, only the quality, fidelity and exposure has improved over time. Before Today was the band’s first album on 4AD and their first to feature clear studio recording. They also simplified and blended their various eccentricities more than ever before to create something more easily digestible than ever before. Mature Themes is by contrast both a step forward and a step backward. The band sounds more polished than ever, but the strangeness is back in its fullest effect. In some respects it’s serving to weed out the new set of fans that have discovered the band in recent years, trying to scare them away from a good thing. But if you find Pink’s oddball sensibilities gripping, there’s more than a fair share of reasons to keep paying attention. On the song “Early Birds of Babylon,” Pink keeps asking, “Hey, how does he do that?” Listening through this record, you’ll likely find yourself asking that same question of Pink over and over again.