Mature Themes is a quality representation of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti as they are now, and have been since 2010’s Before Today, the release that cushioned Pink’s songwriting with increased polish and instrumental dexterity. As the full band’s debut, Before Today didn’t suffocate Pink’s audible personality. Instead, it allowed him to breathe while providing clarity – at least the most you can get with Pink. His lyrics will sometimes sound like nonsense, even if certain phrases are sure to evoke laughter or spine-tingling romance. And his songs rarely present a cohesive narrative, opting instead for moments and stanzas that hit the right spot in their blurry contexts. But there’s something consuming about the compatibility of his clever arrangements and lyrics, present since the days he personally distributed his lo-fi bedroom-pop on CD-Rs. While Mature Themes doesn’t quite exceed the thrills of Before Today, it certainly matches it in terms of quality, while heavily rewarding listeners that give it multiple listens.
A fairly basic organ arpeggio reflects Pink’s playful voice in the opening “Kinski Assassin”, led by an infectious chorus where Pink repeats “Who sunk my battleship? I sank my battleship” over interchanging guitar and synth leads. The lyrical oddities merely begin there. “Suicide dumplings dumping testicle bombs,” he sings at one point, alternating between a maniacal quiver and a smooth, guitar-accompanied reprieve. This and the subsequent “Is This the Best Spot?” are concise reminders of Pink’s idiosyncratic presence and willingness to pay homage to the past without abiding by a template.
Names like Frank Zappa and Sparks are relevant influences on Mature Themes, but not vital references. Pink’s songs are clearly his creations. While “Schnitzel Boogie” sounds like a groggy Zappa over the backing of a fuzzy-bass Beach Boys’ Love You cut, it is complementary to everything that makes Ariel Pink so distinctive. Channeling a similar balance, “Is This the Best Spot?” is tightly constructed of cross-knit influences while embracing of similar comedic change. It extends its initial post-punk suaveness – where Pink quickly recites “G-spot! H-bomb!” – into a hectic and warbled collection of vintage and spacey synths. Heavy guitars descend slowly over a wiggly synth during the bridge, and the track ends abruptly and aptly. Haunted Graffiti tend to use these raucous guitar tones sparingly but wisely, as “Butt House Blondies” reminds us. Though not nearly as ferocious, “Is This the Best Spot?” is a frenzied burst of creativity that suits Pink’s multiple stylistic personalities well.
The first two tracks on Mature Themes do an impressive job of easing listeners into Pink’s hectic though brilliant arrangements and bizarre lyrical content, before epics like “Symphony of the Nymph” and faithful post-punk homage “Early Birds of Babylon” potentially become too overwhelming for new listeners. It’s difficult to criticize the former in any capacity, though. “Symphony of the Nymph” sounds like a hybrid of Sparks’ ongoing conceptual rock ambitions and medieval court songs. “I’m just a rock ‘n’ roller from Beverly Hills. My name is Ariel, and I’m a nymph,” he sings, after noting he “can’t get enough of those bitches.” The focus is silly and humorous, and the arrangement remarkably consuming. The likeness to old pal John Maus’ reverb-heavy organs and synths is particularly prominent during the verses, but with a quicker pop feel to it, unlike another Maus sound-alike. The stunning finale, “Nostradamus & Me”, is a gradual epic where bubbly bass-led synth ambience eventually meets trickling guitars and a sonar-like sample. Its sound hearkens back to the days of The Doldrums, where the polish displayed on “Only in My Dreams” and “Mature Themes” wasn’t reachable, even if the songwriting quality was the same.
“Mature Themes” is warm and fuzzy in comparison to most of its album, as swaying acoustics and gleeful synth twinkle over Pink’s fleeting phrase, “I want it to be good, baby.” While perhaps the least ambitious effort on the album alongside “Pink Slime” and “Live It Up”, it’s one of the catchiest – alongside “Only in My Dreams”, of course, which echoes the greatest of ’60s and ‘70s AM-pop. It’s a flawless listen, and one that best summarizes Ariel Pink’s more melodic sensibilities.
In contrast, the anxious “Driftwood” features lyrics like “eating children on a Monday morning” and “laughter in the hangman’s eye”. An ominous post-punk bass scatters the initial verse’s nonchalance. The chorus plays like a plane making an unpleasantly rapid descent; anxiety is created via the descending keys and suffocating percussion, its otherworldly evolution reminiscent of early The Studio tracks. Some sections sound awkward and cumbersome, as style flaunts itself over the rich variation we expect. Still, even this one adds a certain mood to Mature Themes, which juggles absurdist humor with murky atmospheres and sentiments, never willing to be one-dimensional.
The back end of Mature Themes contains a nice variety, from quick synth-pop stunts to the brilliant guitar-led “Farewell American Primitive”. Pink’s classic-rock heroes come alive again here, with a jangly lead guitar and wobbly synths reminding of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters phase. The guitar solo that finalizes the track’s stunning nostalgia sounds straight out of a Felt album. Ariel Pink sounding like Lawrence Hayward is good, to be expected. “Farewell American Primitive” seems bound to be a fan favorite.
The stylish “Pink Slime” reminds of his earlier material, and leans into the electo-pop spectrum. The pace picks up after the one-minute mark. “Live It Up” is similar in style, playing with loopy keys and wry guitar accompaniments, with nice development after things get underway. In being memorable, both these efforts pale in comparison to more colorful tracks like “Is This the Best Spot?” and “Symphony of the Nymph”, but are not without their own merits. The same can be said for pretty much everything on Mature Themes, which continues Ariel Pink’s newly polished phase without sacrificing the idiosyncratic creativity that makes his early material so memorable.