Years in the spotlight have not revealed Ariel Pink to be a secretly normal guy. In the last half decade, as the former home-recorder has morphed into an indie rock celebrity, he’s seemed incapable of speaking in a way that doesn’t self-sabotage. Every 2014 interview with Pink has gone roughly the same way. He’ll say something offensive but wacky, about the Westboro Baptist Church or Rwandan genocide, say, that’s hard to buy as a firmly held belief. When challenged, he’ll double down then deflate, lashing out with just a hint of deep human sadness. “I wish I didn’t get all this attention, have to do interviews,” he told The Guardian. “I don’t want to be known. I’d like to get by without making a fool of myself, running my mouth all the time. It’s not helping me.”
It’s still easy to grasp the once-romantic ideal of Ariel Pink, the one that first captivated Animal Collective, who listened to his demos in their tour van. He’s the shut-in savant, a true outsider allowed to be a paradoxical retro-music original because he lacks a filter for ideas a more conventional mind might consider too extreme, tasteless, or stupid to carry on to completion. When finally dragged from his basement into the light, the underside of that fictional character was probably never going to be pretty. What were the chances of engaging a gnome genius only to discover that his true personality is 100 percent well-adjusted and in tune with the shifting demands of public life?
For some, Pink’s recent wrangling with women has been a troll too far. It started with a weirdly uncomfortable anecdote about being “maced by a feminist,” and extended to an unsolicited dish session about Interscope execs asking him to help on a new Madonna album, necessitated by what he saw as the long steady slide of the icon’s career. He’ll refer to Grimes as the female version of him, yet also “stupid and retarded” in the same breath. He’s been so far unable to seem repentant about any of this. “Everybody’s a victim, except for small, white, nice guys who just want to make their moms proud and touch some boobies,” he told the New Yorker of all places.
The page-view benefit for publications headlining his wildest utterances is obvious. The end game for those repelled, yet still hate-clicking, is less clear. Deciding with mathematical certainty which parts of Pink’s persona are real, and which are a put-on? Sleuthing out how he interacts in his personal life, and to what degree it matches up with the babble he gives interviewers? What’s gained by knowing? Permission granted to dismiss his work entirely? A final rendered judgment that forces Ariel Pink out of our culture if he won’t shut up? It’s a game no one seems to be winning.
So clearly, Pink’s new record, pom pom, comes with a full cart of baggage. It’s his third record of studio-recorded material for legendary British label 4AD, and the first to bill him as a solo act without his band, Haunted Graffiti. Like its predecessors it’s a confusing jumble of indelible pop melody, juvenile humor, deep melancholy, and unfathomable decision making. Both of Pink’s “mainstream” records were much stranger than smooth singles suggested. You could sway to “Round and Round” without thinking too hard about “Menopause Man,” feel heartsick during his Elvis Costello-esque “Mature Themes” yet gloss over “Symphony of the Nymph”’s concentrated sleaze. Though similar to both, pom pom is the record where the distinction between Ariel Pink’s best material and his most bizarre is hardest to parse, where the questionable tangents of his old CD-Rs are executed to exaction and fleeting retro-pop comfort is often denied. More than ever, a listener’s forced to grapple with the actual worth of cotton-candy-puke-pink junk pop rather than the novelty of its existence.
Pink’s ability to make heinously catchy music is at this point beyond question. Again and again, pom pomprovides near-constant hooks as hard to scrub from your brain as the “Too Many Cooks“ theme. Deranged opener “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” melds a 70s kid-show cereal-rush to non sequitur cocaine references and general nonsense. (It sounds like a Kim Fowley fever dream, because Pink actually went to the sick bed of the abusive Runaways’ svengali to obtain its outline.) “Not Enough Violence” is a carefully controlled stadium-goth jam that makes a post-Pink post-punk like John Maus seem like an extra pale imitator. Gentler tracks “Put Your Number in My Phone” and “Picture Me Gone” treat device-mediated modern relationships with alternating hopefulness and sadness. This stuff is especially hard to objectively dislike. If Pink could fake sweetness this well in an interview, he’d likely be coasting easily. That he can’t flip that switch suggests he might just mean all of it.
That realization leads single “Black Ballerina” to cause extra-uneasy feelings. Taken seriously, the song both objectifies women and acknowledges a visceral fear of them. But it’s essentially sketch comedy set to a steady groove. Is that ironic distance just a half-assed cover-up of deeply held misogynist feelings? Does a song about a cartoon sailor taking his grandson to a strip club demand a straight-faced political reading? And if so, don’t you have to take the psychotic commercial jingle “Jell-O” just as seriously? What creeping rot is painted over in shades of quivering neon green?! Thus, the sincerity versus insincerity struggle that’s always been central to engaging with Pink’s work reaches its final impasse. As Pink put it in another quickly disintegrating interview, “It’s not illegal to be an asshole.”
But accusing Pink of rank cynicism seems like a stretch. How could anyone so painstakingly reproduce entire genres while holding deep disapproval towards them, releasing years of work with a huckster’s “these rubes’ll swallow anything!” glee? Saturday morning cartoon themes and morally dubious sex funk are equally real to him. He executes them seriously, while resisting the need to actually make them over-serious. A juvenile worldview can still be honestly reached.
A quizzical collaboration between Pink and Harlem rapper Azealia Banks reveals those two as unlikely friends and oddly obvious kindred spirits. The chirpy beach-blanket gonzo of “Nude Beach A-Go-Go” is far more jarring in the running order of the her debut Broke With Expensive Taste than it is on pom pom. It’s a blast from the past that breaks up her sound’s future shock, and just another fading board game cover on Pink’s dusty shelf. Being forced to think about the two of them in context is pretty interesting, though. Both are natural talents possessed by a pathological refusal to let their work speak for itself. Banks’ harmful pre-album narrative was that she was too busy talking shit to ever get shit done. Finally releasing her album solves that, more or less. The tragedy of Ariel Pink is that he may never write a hook strong enough to finally let him off the hook of being Ariel Pink