Ariel Pink spent a lot of time underground, noticed by none but a small cult following -- comprising quite a few musicians -- as he cranked out tape-hiss curios from his bedroom for years. That changed, of course, with 2010's Before Today, where Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti joined 4AD Records, entered a proper studio, and turned from eccentric lo-fi project to legitimate and celebrated band. The touchstones to '70s AM-pop and '80s synths were still there, but the hissing detritus of home recording was stripped away to reveal songs that were sweet and deeply textured if not quite lush.
Before Today was a prime example of how to up fidelity and recording budget without losing identity, and the controlled, lean yet gauzy pop became, arguably, the most revealing Ariel Pink album even as it was also the most accessible. Now the follow-up, Mature Themes, seeks to expand on that studio vibe, so that the band can, according to Pink, "let [their] hair down and try new things." The resulting album has all the keys and thin, moody guitar lines of its predecessor, and finds Pink digging even deeper into his space-age, slack crooner persona as a front man.
It's a collection that, for all its trying of new things, feels disjointed. The island hopping from sound to sound, from genre to genre, isn't new to Pink, but on Mature Themes the shifts seem far more jarring than Before Today. The toy keyboards that bounce playfully on opener "Kinski Assassin" have basically nothing to do with the fuzzy skronk-rock-cum-electro-pop of "Is This The Best?" The title track is an unabashedly dreamy AM-pop tune, with its shimmering guitars and keys that sound like pixelated flutes, but it's followed by "Only In My Dreams" which sounds much older, like a perfect approximation of the Byrds' twanging folk-pop.
That's just the first four songs. There's also the gloomy industrial tones of "Early Birds of Babylon," the video game soundtrack vibe of "Pink Slime," the expansive ambience of "Me and Nostradamus" and so on. If these all share elements -- the airy keys, Pink's knack for conveying a very earnest pop nostalgia -- they also feel like pieces in a mosiac that never quite takes shape. The shards are there, threatening to form into something bigger, but they never quite do. Part of the problem is tonal, in that the album vascillates from the heartbroken to the utterly goofy. When Ariel Pink plays its straight here, it works. That title track has a winking humor to it, but under it is a yearning ("I wanted to be good," he repeats to "my baby") that makes the song resonate. "Only in My Dreams" has the same kind of winning sincerity, and the darker moods of "Live It Up" digs into the worry around all Pink's flickering hope. "Fuck it I'm high 'cause the winter makes me so sad," he pines, but there's an edge to his voice, a convincing frustration.
With his songs cleaned up and muscled up in a studio, this and Before Today become moments that let us into the world of Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. So it feels a little disappointing when the band themselves pull away from it for some goofball gags. The Battleship-referencing chorus on "Kinski Assassin" is clever in one way ("Who sunk my battleship? I sunk my battleship.") but also cloying, repeated too many times in a jokey low register. "Schnitzel Boogie" is, you guessed it, about schnitzel, and it is as silly as its title implies. Even "Baby," the lovelorn closer, which feels like the kind of ballad Hall and Oates would have killed for 25 years ago, gets undone when Pink starts a mocking vocal vamp later in the song.
What you get, then, is an album that may have a sonic breadth, but really only two sides: one of sweet pop tunes, and one of strange goof-offs. For an artist who spent so long in obscurity, the sweet side of this album is a sort of coming out party, a further exploration of the tones of Before Today. The rest, though, feels forced in its eccentricity, unsure of itself, the kind of jokes one can hide behind. What Before Today proved, and the best parts of Mature Themes confirm, is that, for Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, there's no need to hide anymore, behind tape hiss or smirks or anything else. Despite the underground beginnings and cult following, it turns out the band is just a damn fine pop group, one with too many hooks to hide away.