By Russell Warfield
Despite the understated modesty of lines like “I’m just a rock and roller from Beverly Hills – my name is Ariel”, it’s true to say that Ariel Pink is one of today’s genuine musical eccentrics, continuing to put out records just as scattered, restless and unpredictable as his befuddling real life behaviour. (And indeed, the foot shuffling humility of that extremely selectively quoted line is the exception which proves the rule. Opening track ‘Kinski Assassin’ tosses out phrases like “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs” and – my personal favourite – “blowjobs of death” with complete nonchalance, and make no more sense ‘in context’ than they do reproduced in isolation here). And indeed, for better or worse, Mature Themes – Pink’s second slightly hi-er than lo-fi record on 4AD – continues in the vein we’ve come to expect: a splatter attack of slanted and softly groovy indie-pop experiments.
Mature Themes starts on an incredibly vivid run in which well maintained and genuine surprise is as much of a quality as the strength of the material itself. The record opens with a border-line spoken word jaunt of ultra-simple up and down hooks in ‘Kinski Assassin’ before moving into the faux-British accented, one-and-a-half minute chaos-rush of ‘Is This The Best Spot?’ Then, after setting some semblance of tone with these at least dimly related opening tracks, the shimmering synth line of the title track soars out of the melee, kicking into motion a one-two punch of showstoppingly glorious sixties pop throwbacks.
And aside from the shift in texture and genre, the crunching gear shift in lyricism and tone is just as stark – moving from the bewildering “’G-Spot. H-Bomb. Let’s go! Sorry said the fanny to the HEAAAD!” to the straight-played “if at first you don’t succeed in love, just dream a little dream about a girl so real” with no sense of being intentionally contrary or smugly playing switch ‘em up. Instead, the juxtaposition works wonderfully owing to its sheer audacity; the fact that Haunted Graffiti are just so earnestly in love with different vibes and different jams that they seem blind to the fact that these sounds ‘shouldn’t’ congeal.
But, after this initial strong run of aural delight and genuinely unexpected turns, Mature Themes sadly begins narrowing its ambition and homogenising its sound, quickly becoming a murkier trawl of more predictable guitar jams. Results from the album’s mid point onwards frequently range from the uninteresting (‘Farewell American Primitive’) to the unlistenable (‘Schnitzel Boogie’ – a truly abhorrent contender for worst song of the year, featuring an insufferable guitar ‘riff’/vocal ‘hook’ patterning, a spoken word interlude of a fussy food order, and a falsetto coda which goes on for-fucking-ever).
To be sure, Pink hits some heights again – most notably during the pastel neon shimmering of ‘Live It Up’, and the slinky closer ‘Baby’ – but, pushing any record beyond the twin peaks of the title track and ‘Only In My Dreams’ was always going to be an uphill battle. And sadly, by blowing his wildest eccentricities in an opening run which thrillingly shifts the goalposts in ways which albums rarely dare, Pink falls even harder as a victim to the law of diminishing returns as Mature Themes unwisely funnels itself into thinner, more conventional parameters.