The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reviews

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Mature Themes Joe Kennedy , August 16th, 2012 12:34

Add your comment »

Early 90s lo-fi was, by and large, a creed by which making music was a free choice, an expression of a decision not to participate in the acquisitive rat-race the 80s had set in motion and to which a cultivated air of unprofessionalism offered some form of rebuke. The autobiography of hypnagogic pop, slacker music's descendent at least in terms of recording values, might be said to be almost the diametric opposite of this: its narrative is one of compulsion, of being possessed by sound encountered in early life which insists on using the performer's body as a conduit for its repetition. In this tale, the artist's agency is envisaged as limited, with music presented as an irresistible, occult force.

There's a lot to like in such a notion but, just as slacker-band mythologies tended to conceal trust-funded conditions of artistic production, hypnagogic's rhetoric of enslavement to the music isn't entirely sound. Ariel Pink has form when it comes to talking about, well, not being able to help himself, and one has to wonder if aspects of his interview patter spring from a desire to imbue his work with the weight of inevitability or necessity. However, Mature Themes, his properly-recorded new album and his second for 4AD, may well mark the point at which Pink achieves an audience wider than the critical faction for whom his creative process has justified some pretty underwhelming music. It's worth speculating as to what this record will sound like to those uninterested in the kinds of cultural theorising which have accompanied – or, more aptly, acted as the necessary complement to – previous releases.

The songs on Mature Themes aren't connected by a style and, unequipped with prior awareness of the discussion around hypnagogic pop and hauntology, would probably sound as frustratingly incompatible with each other as those on Beck's most distracted efforts. Pink's hand turns to everything: the Farfisa-propelled opener 'Kinski Assassin' sounds exactly like Beat Happening; 'Early Birds of Babylon' is a Cult-like play at spooky; 'Baby' is a self-consciously erotic piece of Philly soul. If you're not in on the joke, these things simply don't follow. That's not to say, though, that there is nothing holding the album together. The glue is a certain, almost ineffable, texture of analogue wheeze which gives the sense that every song is struggling into the temporal distance.

Critics have tended to ascribe the depleted, blurred aspect of Pink's aesthetic to a need to provide a tactile demonstration of the way in which sound decays across periods of time. One could think of it differently, though – as the effect of something struggling to keep on being heard, as a sonics of effort which might be read as another claim for the inevitability of outmoded forms which are locked in a struggle with the contemporary. Again, then, the music is forcing itself on the artist and making him an instrument of its will. In an interview with this site a few years ago, Pink spoke of finding therapy liberating: "I realised it wasn't all me, it was them", he said, referring to his parents. Mature Themes is dominated by a similar conceit. He's not the postmodern artist playing excitedly with the fragments of history, but the vaguely resistant body through which those fragments, after a brief fight, go on living.

Instead of nodding along to the argument that the music here seems to be making, one might instead point out that it seems somewhat deterministic. This seems more urgent when it becomes clear that Pink is using his lyrics to make statements about other forms of behaviour being the fault of culture, rather than the individual. 'Symphony of the Nymph' is particularly guilty of this: "I don't want to burn any bridges / but I can't get enough of those bitches / I'm just a rock 'n' rolla from Beverley Hills...". Now, no doubt someone will be along soon to say that this is a 'deconstruction' of a specific strand of West Coast rock mythology, but I'd venture that it's precisely not that. As far as Pink's concerned, he's being made to do it – let the music in, become a "rock 'n' rolla", and you no longer have any say in your own behaviour, let alone the faculties necessary to achieve ironic distance from misogynistic idiocy like this.

In addition to all this, several songs on Mature Themes – particularly the annoying 'Is This The Best Spot' – draw heavily on the musical template of TV advertising, another thing that is supposed to be irresistible. Those who have portrayed Pink as an inspired explorer of the relationship between memory and the more crass aspects of popular culture have at times written very convincingly, and almost always enjoyably, invariably giving more pleasure than the records. But there's a difference between subtly investigating how one's mind becomes occupied by trash and prostrating oneself before that trash and its implied values, and Pink errs increasingly towards the latter. Ultimately, this is a celebration, rather than an analysis, of several species of awfulness.


Aug 16, 2012 4:56pm

And he has shit hair.

Reply to this Admin

John Calvert
Aug 16, 2012 7:44pm

great article. especially the second half.

Reply to this Admin

1955
Aug 16, 2012 8:25pm

I think perhaps your reading too much in to Ariel Pink's music and sound a bit like your trying to analyse it's post modern values in a way Simon Reynolds might in Retromania. You kind of know with his music that it's going to be a 3 out of 5 experience but that's kinda the point.

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Aug 16, 2012 10:06pm

In reply to 1955:

Much as I love Simon Reynolds, I'm - as far as I'm aware - making a counter-claim to what he says about AP. As for 'reading too much into it', I think that's an odd point to make given that (as John Calvert has pointed out, excellently, in Fact this week), Pink basically relies on theorisation to gain critical purchase.

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Aug 16, 2012 10:08pm

In reply to John Calvert:

Cheers John - actually found this hard to write after your R Stevie piece in Fact, given that you said so much of what I wanted/ needed to say!

Reply to this Admin


Aug 17, 2012 2:38am

I read The Quietus regularly and really like the content but can't say i'm impressed with this review - makes pop music so dry it's in a coma. seems incredibly hyporcritical to criticise an artist for relying on theories which the queietus are likely to posit on a regular basis - fuck it, bring on Ariel's trash, sounds miles better than this po-faced wank

Reply to this Admin

VideoBuddha
Aug 17, 2012 9:47am

In reply to Joe K:

"Now, no doubt someone will be along soon to say that this is a 'deconstruction' of a specific strand of West Coast rock mythology, but I'd venture that it's precisely not that" - I'd agree, but then doesn't this run almost contrary to your line "Pink basically relies on theorisation to gain critical purchase." To me, you seem to be suggesting on one hand he's a straight down the middle rock and roll guy with little sense of irony etc, and on the other hand, he's almost manipulating critics to fit in with their theories. Being one doesn't preclude the other, but who is at fault here, Pink or his critics?

I'd draw a direct line from Ween to Ariel Pink, who were also "rock n Rolla's" who were portrayed by critics as clowns, tricksters, post-modern parodiers, when they were basically just un-ironic American cock-rockers, who happened to be lo-fi, as much through their situation as through artistic choice.

Celebrations of trash are fine, I'm not going to be sniffy about them, quite a bit of library and TV theme music is excellent and don't need giant theses to enjoy, whereas occasionally some (not all) of the bands championed on here do. Ultimately it doesn't matter if the music is good, but when you start coming across lines, such as "take a permanent vacation get the fuck out of town, go see Jamaica motherfucker" in Ween's pretty horrible "Reggaejunkiejew" and from the lyrics quoted here on Symphony of the Nymph, Pink seems to be lurching in a similar direction, if he wasn't already there, then it becomes quite a bit harder to take.

Reply to this Admin

Luke
Aug 17, 2012 10:10am

In total agreement with this review. The album is frustrating shambolic. Better as a comedy album rather than one to take seriously.

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Aug 17, 2012 10:29am

In reply to :

Is this from Ikea's new range of flat-pack criticism? Instructions: 1) Stay anonymous; 2) Say 'I usually like (x) but...'; 3) Forget how to spell the key adjective in your scathing attack; 4) Misunderstand the article; 5) Become so frustrated at your inability to articulate what it is you mean by calling the article 'wank'. There you go, a nice template you there.

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Aug 17, 2012 10:38am

In reply to VideoBuddha:

Loads of good points there, and I'll admit to having my head in a knot now! I guess the point I'd make here is that 'theory' and 'deconstruction' needn't be synonyms - a lot of the (good) theorising about hauntology/ hypnagogic has come out of a turn against the increasing aimlessness of deconstruction; deconstruction in pop has made a journey from the genuinely deconstructive strategies of the early 80s (post-punk; hip-hop etc) to, basically, a bunch of people following well-worn paths out of a lack of imagination and then claiming to be 'deconstructing' them. Sorry that this doesn't really answer your point - just think it's an interesting tangent. Anyhow: Ween. Interesting one, and was just thinking about them the other day. Guess I feel pretty similarly to you about them these days: lots of horrible stuff dressed up as 'banter', effectively...

Reply to this Admin

Tim Burrows
Aug 17, 2012 11:26am

Beginning to think I'm the only person on earth who's been enjoying this record. I once felt the same about Pink as you Joe, but I'm more inclined these days to think of his output as not just irony or pastiche, but as sonic utterances from a disturbed mind (which isn't to try and romanticise/overplay, just a statement of fact drawn from the interviews I've read over the past few years) via R Stevie Moore's diaristic approach, which results in the odd fantastic song, but lots more to unpick. The thing I don't get with all the criticism of the record is that it sounds difficult/unenjoyable - to me it sounds like an off-key experimental rock record with some pop melodies and some annoying bits, like off-key experimental rock records often do. Seemed a fairly easy listen. The second song is reminiscent of Wire/post-punk. Only in My Dreams features quite gorgeous harmonies. It's a rhythmically interesting record too. The vocalised rhythms in Early Birds of Babylon are summink else. Don't even know why I writing all this down on here, just feel the album's getting an unfair kicking at the moment!

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Aug 17, 2012 11:41am

In reply to Tim Burrows:

I know what you mean about the second track and Wire, but the similarities are to the Wire songs that get on my nerves! Otherwise, I can see your point, particularly about how the record is rhythmically interesting: 'Driftwood' fits this category in particular and, if I was going at this review a different way, I think I'd have written about that. That might be the point, though - Pink is at his best when he's a (relatively) straightforward experimental pop artist, and all this unbearable-weight-of-bygone-pop stuff his music articulates (and I stick by the argument that it's the music itself which does this, not the interviews) distracts from that. Same with Beck, come to think of it, who I think is AP's real predecessor.

Reply to this Admin

Tim Burrows
Aug 17, 2012 12:04pm

In reply to Joe K:

Yer, he sure ain't riffing on 254! Know what you mean w Beck, and I wouldn't be surprised if he fell into scientology at some point. Agree re: "He's not the postmodern artist playing excitedly with the fragments of history, but the vaguely resistant body through which those fragments, after a brief fight, go on living." But we could say the same bout Beefheart and many others.

Reply to this Admin

Tim Burrows
Aug 17, 2012 2:03pm

In reply to Tim Burrows:

Oops. Before a pedant get's in there first - meant 154. *Gets coat, in spite of fair weather*

Reply to this Admin

Andy
Aug 17, 2012 10:29pm

I really appreciate the dialogue below the review. Definitely was a little frustrated after my quick read – having not listened to the album yet, but having immensely enjoyed Doldrums and a # of tracks in the Pink catalogue – but the additional nuance and fisticuffs that followed has made me (perhaps) more willing/prepared to really take in the album as a piece of cultural something-or-other. Thanks, Quietus!

Reply to this Admin

Joe K
Aug 18, 2012 10:39am

In reply to Andy:

Excellent points, Andy. Surely the point of long-form reviewing on sites like this - which aren't restricted by the material/ spatial limitations of print - is to try and find new (or newish) ways of having a conversation about a particular artist. Even if a review itself comes across as a load of bollocks - which clearly some think this one does - it can still act as a touchstone for an interesting discussion.

Reply to this Admin

George Frogsporn
Aug 19, 2012 7:51pm

In reply to Joe K:

@ Joe K you come across as exactly the kind of guy we could use on our team. If you're not too busy with your musicology Phd is there any chance you could help us out in Corby?

Reply to this Admin

The RnR Burial
Aug 22, 2012 7:05pm

I like this sentence: "Its narrative is one of compulsion, of being possessed by sound encountered in early life which insists on using the performer's body as a conduit for its repetition."

After listening to a couple of the old AP albums, my feeling is that he's doing pretty much what Burial does, except with 60s/70s MOR pop/rock rather than 80s/90s electronic/pop.

Reply to this Admin

jeffort23
Aug 27, 2012 6:18pm

"The kind of of music usually reserved for dimly lit hash bars and p*rno movie sets."
http://ludditestereo.net/2012/08/26/mature-themes-ariel-pinks-haunted-graffiti-album-review/

Reply to this Admin

Bob
Feb 27, 2013 9:57am

Fantastic writing. The kind of thinking that could spark a serious vantage point from which to challenge retro tendencies beyond the usual skeptical ambivalence. We've become to accustomed to the effects of trash and cliche on our minds and bodies, slowly coming to read the success of these effects as pertaining to their value, and as something worthy of being indulged.

Chintz and trash has gone beyond some post-modern questioning of 'bourgeois good taste', or whatever its other functions, and is now employed simply as a formerly unexplored resource of effects, triggers, 'yeah, I loved those TV themes when I was a kid', a memetic comfort blanket. You're right, there is more a sense of giving in, desperation and emptiness than there is arch knowingness going on with artists like Ariel Pink.

Reply to this Admin