There’s a wonderful poem by Wallace Stevens called “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” and it reminds me of Ariel Pink quite frequently. It’s a poem about self-discovery, though not in any traditional sense. The speaker descends purple-clad through lonely air down into the depths of his mind. It’s not really a retreat so much as it is an inward cerebral joyride. The speaker talks of strange ointments, music and a sea. “I was myself the compass of that sea,” he says, raising an interesting thought: in the deepest, most bizarre frontiers of our imagination, who can guide us but ourselves? And doesn’t it make one hell of a spectacle? “I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself; / And there I found myself more truly and more strange.”

pom pom

B+
Ariel Pink
4AD


The last line of that poem has always struck me differently when I read it in the context of Ariel Pink and the profundity of his imagination. Through his own specialized brand of psychedelic pop, developed over the years in places like his bedroom and garage (Animal Collective picked him up as an unsigned 25-year-old in 2003), Pink explores the regions of his mind as though it were a constantly changing planet without time and without the serious means to evolve. As a result, his music is consistent in that it’s familiarly obscure. His two prior albums, Before Today and Mature Themes, are linked to pom pom somewhat through their sound but mostly through Pink’s honest and whimsical introspection. They are three distinct travel records into the mind of a man who sounds like he escaped from the North Pole and is continuing to discover the tastes and styles of pop music through ’80s horror flicks.

While Pink has often cited The Cure as a major influence on his work, and while the same synth-curtain falls over most of the same mouthy vocals and weary-toned guitars, the band Love, in the era of Forever Changes, is his more apt predecessor. They are each, at heart, natural musicians with a marvelous talent for crafting light-sounding pop anchored by its own unwieldy subject matter. It can come across as superficial and nonchalant, but if you tune your ear to the right frequency — their frequency — you can hear the music’s intricacies and little pieces actively coagulate like a sort of sun-pierced stained glass window.

Pink and Love are also similar in their pushing of listeners toward self-abandon; that is to say, they each tend to draw on images and fantasies from the unconscious in order to unsettle the listener. Arthur Lee, as the principal songwriter for Love on Forever Changes, went about this rather innocently and self-mockingly, a good example being the first two lines of “Live and Let Live” in which he sings, “Oh, and the snot has caked against my pants / It has turned into crystal.”

Ariel Pink on the other hand takes serious pride in his effort to subdue the listener’s judgment, making it more of a strategic ploy than a stylistic flare. He recently reflected on his music and echoed this idea.

“Maybe by making people feel uncomfortable, I tap into that uncanny quality that is part of the scariest, weirdest things that you remember happening to you as a kid.” As if the statement wasn’t overtly Freudian enough, he then added, “I mine that territory more than anything: the unconscious.”

For Pink, little matters aside from the place he takes listeners throughout the album. From song to song, he packs as many melodies, jingles, bridges, hooks, cues and riffs as he can fit — all fuel for a rocket launch over the mental divide and into the realm of the unconscious. From the outset on pom pom’s opener he sets the scene, telling us exactly where it is we’ll go: “It’s a Tokyo night when you feel alright / The Arkansas moon’s gonna shine tonight / All over the world we’re gonna do it right.” The catch is that even though this trip sounds fairly normal and fun, the place we’re really going is somewhere far less identifiable, a place where people wear “Raincoats in the big pig parade.”

The front side of pom pom is deliciously overwrought with ’80s dream pop and psychedelic rock, reworked and reshaped until old familiar phrases and tunes become clever quips for Pink’s peculiar agenda. The stretch of pop-rock songwriting from “White Freckles” to “Nude Beach A Go-Go” is one of this year’s best, crammed with unusual turns of phrases that’ll stick in your head all day. “I’m a hunter / I flash my teeth / I snuck you into my dog nest,” Pink sings to a beat-driven, synth-screaming chorus on “Lipstick.” The way he sings “dog nest” could easily be heard as “darkness,” which makes a lot of sense for this record. This sound on pom pom is darker than much of Pink’s recent work, if not entirely more serious.

For example, “Picture Me Gone” is probably the most serious thing Pink has done. In October he teamed up with the children’s group PS22 Chorus, to record a live version of the song. If you can set aside the ridiculously silly idea of Pink being a lead choir boy, what you get instead is a heartfelt song about a father lamenting the loss of his family’s physical, hard-copy photo albums. Instead, he’s forced to search through a computer hard drive to “make a toast to glory days.” Registering at 5 minutes and 41 seconds, the song is slow and expansive, centered on a chorus that’s filled with pained emotion. It’s Pink at his weirdest: somber.

For the most part, pom pom is a continuation of Pink’s maniacal thrust into the subconscious mind, where there is both escape from one’s self and immersion in it. That, I think, is the central problem of Pink’s music: how does one soar through the boundless territory of the unconscious without being completely consumed by what they see? And as he remains dedicated to finding an answer, he does leave a little kernel of truth for us. On the album’s closer, “Dayzed Inn Daydreams,” Pink describes his fascination with dreams and dreaming, how they open up worlds within worlds within ourselves. But he also notes that imagination breeds mystery, and in this mystery we tend to hide ourselves. “The story ends untold / My will survives / In a thousand future lives,” he sings, “And with that / I bid adieu.”

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