Ariel Pink is alone. He may have just released his first solo-billed album pom pom this week, but even when he was recording with an ever-evolving cast of characters called Haunted Graffiti, the focus was always on the manic carnival in Pink’s mind. For years, those visions were confined to recordings and rerecordings of sketches and demos that he started as a student at CalArts. After years of obscurity, Pink signed to 4AD in 2010 and released Before Today which featured cleaner, more accessible versions of some of this material. 2012’s Mature Themes, an album of all-new songs, first showed us that Pink could divorce himself from his earlier work. Now that he’s come back two years later with not only a bevy of fresh work, but a 68-minute double album of intricate, avant-garde pop, it begs the question: Does this mean he’s more in touch with reality, or has he tapped even deeper into the recesses of his imagination?
There’s evidence for the latter in one of the many blunders that got Pink in hot water this year. In a video interview with Alexi Wasser of I’m Boy Crazy fame, Pink relays a distressing story of “getting maced by a feminist.” The story, in which Pink goes on a bad first date with someone who talked too much about her “daddy issues” and then made a scene outside of a smoothie shop the next morning (he’s careful to note the relationship was never “consummated”) is a pretty bad look, especially coming from someone who dismisses love and monogamy as a “fairy tale,” as Pink does on pom pom album track “One Summer Night.” But it’s not Pink’s winding story that is of most note: An attentive eye will spot that Pink is wearing a red crewneck sweatshirt with “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” printed plainly across the chest.
Pink has been traipsing through a sexual Oz for decades. His Technicolor make-believe is best displayed on the album’s controversial second single “Black Ballerina.” Pink populates a subdued synth-line that is both dimly cheerful and brightly empathic, with interplay between near-monotone verses and a titillated hook. It is punctuated with a spoken interlude wherein a pimply faced-sounding kid named Billy is introduced to a topless dancer, his shaking voice a hint to the listener that he is encountering live flesh for the first time. After complimenting her areolas, things go south for Billy, who is unaware that you are not supposed to touch a stripper. Here, we have a near-crippling illustration of the two poles that play out in Pink’s skewed consciousness. In a 2010 profile in The FADER, he revealed that he lost his virginity at 13 when his cousins took him to a brothel in Mexico City. It was, “requested that he not cry and [he was] told…he would have to pay for each of his orgasms.” More from the piece:
Whether to avoid the expense or the tears, Pink went deep inside his mind as they made love, finally deciding to finish almost an hour later. His cousins were shocked. “They thought that she was going to come out with me in her arms and say, ‘Shhh, don’t wake him,’” he remembers. “Coming has always been something I’ve found hard to do because I get so distracted. I distract myself. I’m very much in my own head, but what’s the alternative?”
That lack of an “alternative” is the engine for the disturbed fantasias that power pom pom. “Sexual Athletics” is crunchy psychedelia full of absurd carnal boasting, while “Four Shadows” finds him tinkering with goth and chamber pop. Midway through the album, there is the surreal triptych of “Nude Beach A Go-Go” (which Azealia Banks covered on Broke With Expensive Taste), “Goth Bomb” and “Dinosaur Carebears” — by the time you’ve reached its end, you are fully absorbed in Pink’s wild orbit, and the astonishing songwriting skill that makes his alternate universe possible begins to show itself. “Exile on Frog Street” and “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” (co-penned by the equally polarizing former Runaways manager Kim Fowley) are both ebullient and could almost function as children’s songs. Pink is often, and rightfully, called an oddball pop savant. But how could we look at that life episode, 20 years past at this point, and not consider the deeper hurt behind it? He is living in a self-constructed funhouse utterly lacking social mores. His world is one where an abused genius can dish it back into the universe, where it might, possibly, be overlooked or forgiven.
“Not Enough Violence” is the most indicative of this tendency. In a recent interview, Pink said about the song, “We have to mix our violence up…Once a day we get some bad news — ISIS, or something like that — and then we get some nudie celebrity leaks, just to keep us attentive so we don’t get bogged down. It’s like, ‘Just one beheading a day, please!’” Pink, outside of his music, is a troubling figure, but his desire to be exposed to more barbarity in the world hints at the numbness beneath — the same thing that allows him to tell a date to “Shut your mouth, little girl, and respect your elders.” “Violence” is also the album’s strongest cut, featuring Pink at his most ferocious, howling over bright, pop synths with a demented quality to them. Rarely does he attempt these wails and yowls, and the song’s glowing grit is the closest Pink gets to cracking open the door to reality.
Early in the album on “Lipstick,” a song that has a remarkable Donkey Kong Country water level quality to it, Pink sings, “Who is that?/ What am I?” The song ends with the lyric, “Truth exists.” It must, somewhere in pom pom, but Pink is the only one who knows which corners are real. The rest of us are just falling through trap doors he’s rigged.