If Ariel Pink’s recent, elaborate “takeover of Tinseltown” goes to prove anything, it’s that right now—regardless of what his detractors might be claiming—is really a bright time for the Los Angeles musician. At 36, his rather roundabout and toil-heavy path has taken him from the object of bemusement and derision, through an unlikely breakthrough as the godfather of a hypnagogic pop, to his current status of a semi-legendary L.A. cult figure, real or imagined, up there with Angelyne, the Dude, and novelty psych-pop pioneer Kim Fowley (who, not incidentally, guests on Pom Pom). We’ve been hearing a lot of speculation about Pink’s alleged misogyny and criticism for his grotesquely-off-color comments about other artists, but the fact is that he’s hardly a newcomer to the world of provocation; whether casually dropped in interviews, or rather intentionally expressed in lyrics, obscenely jarring statements have long been part of Pink’s go-to vocabulary. What has changed is that now we all seem to care; his opinions matter enough to make the headlines of music magazines.
This makes it the ideal time for an album like Pom Pom to appear—a record that’s the most uniquely Pink (no pun intended) effort he’s made since his early home-recorded assemblages of grotesque-but-infectious, outsider pop. If 2010’s 4AD debut Before Today was a rather unwilling, premature entrance into the mainstream consciousness of indie rock, and its follower a self-backlash of sorts that at times could’ve passed for the soundtrack to a renaissance fair-themed television show for children, Pom Pom marries landmark Pinkish musical tropes into a confident and highly listenable statement. It makes sense that the Haunted Graffiti is gone from his name, after years of signing it off on an array of seriously varied releases. While not recording under his birth-given last name of Rosenberg (yet?), Ariel Pink isn’t hiding behind a moniker of a malleable bottom line anymore, but rather taking full responsibility for his adopted creative persona. Not fiddling with what Pink really means, he seems to have settled with what it has always meant deep down: his intuitive, gut-driven singularity.
Embracing that true self partially means a return to a space that hasn’t been explored by him so fully since Worn Copy – the sleazy id of after-dark, permanently-stuck in the ‘80s central LA dystopia, specked with litter and populated with shady characters, but also penetrating synthesizers and gated snares of drum machines. Pom Pom is fundamentally a nighttime record, and covers the whole spectrum of nighttime moods – from cruising-friendly dub (“Dinosaur Carebears”) to full-fledged newcomer-at-a-Greyhound-station paranoia (“Not Enough Violence”). The latter also happens to be an emotional standout on the album; its ever-present bottom end and “Hounds of Love”-like drums unnerve and lead synth lines nag to the point of unexpected musical bliss. Pink has admitted to his love of the Cure before, and the goth rock vibe shows, again giving fans a treat by returning to an oft-neglected facet of Pink’s sound. As far as the awkwardness of the “penetration time tonight” lyric goes —are we really going to judge the music of a person who once said “lyrics are a necessary evil” by the tastefulness of his verse?
While the name on the sleeve might’ve lost a few letters, Pom Pom is still very much a group effort, likely more than any of Rosenberg’s previous output (the full list of performers includes 15+ musicians and singers). What’s interesting though is that this time around, the contributors (including longtime backers Kenny Gilmore and Tim Koh) seem akin to true collaborators, and not Pink’s hired hands. It’s ironic, too, that a record that feels so (sonically) personal has been the work of such a diverse team of people; it seems that by giving his guests more freedom, Pink becomes paradoxically more “present” in the music. Garage-rock songwriter, producer, and provocateur Kim Fowley, famous for creating the “iconic experience of having the audience light matches and lighters [at rock shows],” and infamous for managing the Runaways in the 1970s, fuels Pink’s self-proclaimed obsession with radio jingles and nonsensical novelty ditties, having co-written “Plastic Raincoats in the Pink Parade,” and “Jell-o” from his hospital bed. The album was co-produced by former Germs drummer (and another California mainstay) Don Bolles, who, as I might only suspect and interpret, spiritually arouses scuzzy instrumental rage in the master of the ceremony (check out raw “Goth Bomb” and the first part of “Sexual Athletics”). Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce contributes guitar to nostalgic and vaporous “Picture Me Gone” and “Dayzed Inn Daydreams,” and “Put Your Number in My Phone” brings back Violens’ Jorge Elbrecht, whose previous partnership with Pink gave birth to “Hang on to Life” – one of the most beautiful pieces of guitar music released last year.
“Put Your Number in My Phone” is an interesting case of a track, too. Elbrecht and Pink have an almost equal knack for crafting harmonically immaculate, Bacharachian pop ballads, and their join effort makes the song one of the absolute best on the album (next to “Not Enough Violence” and “Black Ballerina” – a shockingly saucy story of a man taking his grandson to a strip club, with an insanely infectious structure and a good bunch of moments to hook your ear on). “Put Your Number in My Phone” defines good pop songwriting – it is catchy without resorting to overplayed tricks. At the same time, as the most polished production on the LP, its bright, jangly guitars don’t chime too well with the rest of the LP’s big-city scuzz and Zappian sonic slapstick. While most of Pom Pom sounds legitimately weird at first contact, “Put Your Number” is clean and clear, illustrating the LP’s only major shortcoming: for a record so cohesively showcasing what Ariel Pink is all about, it’s hard to call it cohesive in the most simplistic terms of musical timbres and quality of material.
This kind of hit-or-miss aspect of the album ties in well with Pink’s recent publicity. The grand narrative of the musician’s career seems to be shaping up in front of our eyes, at the center of it his active refusal to become a package with a consensus attached to it. By saying that “it’s not illegal to be an asshole” Pink isn’t proving anyone wrong or right, but rather strives to stay in a world where he’s granted the benefit of imperfection, and his personal flaws, as off-putting as they might be, don’t automatically bear on your judgement of him as an artist. The discussion as to whether it’s possible, or whether a world like that should even be desirable, extends well beyond Pom Pom; dismissing a riveting, painstakingly-forged record of both pristine beauty and equally alluring squalor (because of a news blurb designed to bring in clicks) would be a great shame though.