When Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti put out Before Today, his 4AD debut, the frontman was quick to explain that this was the type of album he had always wanted to put out, if given the equipment and budget. While bizarre themes and meandering genres made the album distinctly Ariel, the large leap from extreme lo-fi to more polished vocals and instrumentation was pretty jarring to longtime fans.
The success of Before Today marked the evolution of Ariel from outsider to quirky indie mainstay, and the accolades came pouring in. It only makes sense that the followup album would be met with great anticipation—and expectation.
Interestingly, the word that seems to keep reappearing in regard to Mature Themes is “frustrating.” Not good, bad or disappointing, but frustrating.
“Kinski Assassin” kicks off the album with a literal bang: “A Kinski assassin blew a hole through my chest,” followed by references to whores, testicles and meth—presumably those themes the album title warned us about. Ariel’s voice sounds like his best moments from The Doldrums with just the right amount of distortion—the quirky melody cushioning abrupt stylistic shifts. Similarly familiar vocals appear on “Is This The Best Spot” and pop against an array of electronic noises.
A return to little or no percussion other than synthetic drum noises is another major shift back to earlier recordings, and this is especially relevant on two of the most endearing tracks of the album. The title track features a rare moment of vocal clarity over a melodic guitar, sufficiently allowing Ariel’s voice to shine. “Only In My Dreams” is a perfectly packaged pop song with a jingle that feels extremely simple yet is actually the result of extreme care, a skill that vintage Ariel pulled off flawlessly.
So yes, Mature Themes is frustrating if not simply for the fact that Ariel has returned to his former outsider self. But if you know anything about Ariel Pink, it’s that he thrills on presenting listeners with a challenge. And if you choose to accept it, and know what you’re getting into, you’ll appreciate his weirdness and not spend the whole album wondering what the hell is going on—even when he’s singing about sinking battleships and eating schnitzel.