A genius, a freak, a trailblazer, a creep; maybe a misogynist, or maybe just misunderstood. Los Angeles pop jester Ariel Marcus Rosenberg has been called many things in the decade since his 2004 breakthrough ‘The Doldrums’. Asked about a controversial interview in which he talked about being “maced by a feminist”, he recently told Pitchfork: “It’s not illegal to be an asshole.” Just last month, he was accused of misogyny by 4AD labelmate Grimes, among others, after commenting on the “downward slide” of Madonna’s career. There’s evidence of pretty much everything he’s been called on ‘Pom Pom’. It’s funny, melancholy, randy, touching, disgusting and deeply, deeply strange. It will baffle many – but at 17 tracks and 70 minutes, it has the feel of a magnum opus.
The Haunted Graffiti band of the Ariel Pink name has now been discarded, but ‘Pom Pom’ is his most collaborative album to date. It was recorded across LA with a revolving cast, including Graffiti veterans Kenny Gilmore and Tim Koh, as well as Don Bolles of LA punks The Germs and Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce (whose guitar is on ‘Picture Me Gone’ and ‘Dayzed Inn Daydreams’). Still, in ways it harks back to the demented cut-and-paste of his pre-4AD lo-fi work. Pink uses musicians like electronic producers use samples, moulding them to his singular vision.
The biggest outside influence is Kim Fowley, a rock impresario who’s rubbed shoulders with Phil Spector and Frank Zappa and produced novelty records that all but defined the form. Originally slated to produce, he and Pink’s autodidactic tendencies clashed; but many of these songs were conceived while Fowley was undergoing treatment for cancer, the pair improvising lyrics like ‘Plastic Raincoats In The Pig Parade’ – part rubber fetishist’s erotic fantasy, part children’s TV theme tune – while the latter was hooked to a morphine drip.
Their partnership makes sense. Pink is a songwriter with few modern comparisons, his bewildering collages valuing perversity over authenticity, mixing tearful sincerity with deadpan absurdity. Often it is very silly: see the ecstatic surf-pop of ‘Nude Beach A G-Go’, in which we’re informed “you can do anything/Ramalama ding-dong/Surf a billy bing-bong”; or ‘Dinosaur Carebears’ with what sounds like the contents of a children’s toybox.
Still, there’s a long seam of sentiment here. A good thing, because Pink’s never better than on numbers like ‘Lipstick’ or ‘Put Your Number On My Phone’, which takes up the artificial sounds of ’80s pop – gated drums, synthesized flute – and works them into something of wistful yearning. The hot-blooded moments, mind, can go either way. Sometimes they’re sweetly odd – see ‘Exile On Frog Street’, Pink a frog prince pining for his Princess Charming. Other times, it’s more icky, like the skit in ‘Black Ballerina’, where an awkward youth gropes a stripper in an ill-judged piece of comic relief.
The key track is another Fowley collaboration, ‘Sexual Athletics’. It starts on a note of braggadocio, Pink rapping about being “the sex king/on a velvet swing”. But this soon softens into sad self-pity: “All I wanted was a girlfriend, all my life”. It’s hard to feel sorry for Ariel Pink, but given it’s followed by a song about wobbly desserts (‘Jell-O’), though, it pays not to take ‘Pom Pom’ too seriously. Genuine weirdos don’t come around all that often; we should at least appreciate this one while he’s here.