In a recent interview with The Wire, Ariel Rosenberg claimed to be the last of the American primitives keeping alive the American pop song: “America’s got no more cultural export left. The Stooges, the dumbed-down, folk, street-level appeal: that was our stock-in-trade and we managed to export it to the world. The degeneration, the lower class, the music that came from that – not the progress that came from the European classical canon, we didn’t adopt that.” And that American hick thing, that thing Elvis shaped when he ripped off black music, according to Rosenberg, inspired the higher-reaching version of Pop that the Beatles shaped in the ’60s. It’s an interesting little history among many other possible histories. But when Rosenberg then criticizes the use of the term “pop” in current music criticism – “now it means ’80s with Beach Boys harmonies. Pop is really Rihanna, or Chris Brown, or whatever’s popular at any given moment” – he seems to be being willfully naive. Of course there is the pop that is simply popular, but then there is the pop that is pleasant, harmonious and full of harmonies. There is the pop that transcends its pleasantness to become sublime.
Brian Wilson is obviously one of the great architects of such a sublime pop, and while it is easy enough to see Pet Sounds as a step away from “real,” popular pop and toward some ideal, other pop, it was meant to be both. Sorrow may have been invited into the sound of the Beach Boys, but discord was not. Theirs remained a harmonious harmony. In a different, but related, vein of thought, Chris Bohn responds to Rosenberg’s assertions in the Masthead for the same issue of The Wire, and argues that there was nothing before or since like Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” “this extraordinary artifice that was at once rock `n’ roll and an art-pop commentary…one of those marvelous and increasingly rare moments when the pop industry’s insatiable demand for novelty to feed its rapid turnover of forever changing yet always the same music coincided with the artist’s desire to announce themselves to the world through those very acts that differentiated themselves from it.” That it is both meta-pop and attractive as pop doubtless still remains a part of “Virginia Plain”‘s appeal, even when looking back 40 years; a song’s posterity has by now been shown to benefit from its having been, at least at some point, both virile pop and art about pop.
The sound of the last Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti record, Before Today, was cleaner than on his previous releases, but it still made clear that part of Rosenberg’s quest for “retroliciousness” continues to be making sabotaged pop music, obscured or defaced pleasantness and harmony. Writing about the earlier Graffiti record, “House Arrest,” Simon Reynolds alleged that Rosenberg is “driven by contradictory impulses that mesh to make sublime noise-pop. The formalist’s love of songcraft and period stylisation (one minute he’s channelling Hall & Oates, the next Blue Oyster Cult) collides with a psychedelic urge to shatter form with kaleidoscopic chaos.” Before Today‘s great Hall and Oates moment, “Can’t Hear My Eyes,” no longer obscured like earlier recordings by being buried in the chance detritus of lo-fi recording, relies on the strangeness of the image of someone listening to hear his eyes to preclude any smooth digestion on the part of the listener. A chaos through confusion of the senses. “Round and Round” somewhat disarms its sexy melancholia by way of strange, awkwardly sung bridges, especially the hammy little bit with a telephone ringing before the chorus harmonies, and the feeling of well-being hey carry, arrive. In both cases, the effects of the graffiti on the pop are subtler than on previous records, and the cover of the Rockin’ Ramrods “Bright Lit Blue Skies” may well be the least mangled thing Rosenberg had released up until now.
Mature Themes basically continues the direction taken on Before Today. The collaborators, the band, are the same – Tim Koh and Kenny Gilmore – and the album begins with two songs that demonstrate the strategy of lining up the listener face to face from some strange, silly, nonsensical, and potentially off-putting lyrical content. “Kinski Assassin” turns personal dreams and experiences into a code that employs testicle bombs, a sperm-headed brain, and bogan she-males hopped up on meth, but the song ends up turning on an inane refrains of “Who sank my battleship? / I sank my battleship,” and “I will always/ I will always have Paris.” “Is This the Best Spot” then begins with him singing “G-Spot / H-bomb / G-Spot / H-bomb.” The lyrics may well seem willfully stupid or in bad taste. But bad taste from what perspective? There is a sense in which they disrupt an otherwise benign-sounding song like “Kinski Assassin.” Sometimes Ariel Rosenberg’s taste just runs to the grotesque and demented, to the body and its functions, real and imagined. There is sometimes something in these songs that is repulsive and questionable, and not only from the perspective of an overly repressed or sanitary sensibility.
That the following two songs are basically gentle, dreamy love songs, lovely and without any lyrical shock effects, is, however, something different, something of a surprise. “Mature Themes” and “Only in My Dreams” seem aimed at capturing a quality of innocence, the uncomplicated stance of the well-meaning male lover at the heart of so many popular songs from other times, vulnerable and earnest. The record winds up on “Baby,” which is basically this sort of space pushed toward a more sexual boundary. It’s a cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s recently unearthed 1979 gem, which has also been given a great re-reading by Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland (Hype Williams) this year. Is this Ariel Pink playing it straight, or is there some subterfuge in pleasantness in the context he has created for himself at this point?
Aside from these three songs, the strangeness remains, as on “Symphony of the Nymph,” alluring with its groove and organ chords, trifling or getting true, as you see it, with lyrics about nymphomania in discotheques and bibliotheques, Dr. Mario the barrio colonoscopist, and a clippity-clop horse sound, as well as a bawdy call of giddy-up, giddy-up girl. “I don’t mean to burn any bridges / but I just can’t get enough of those bitches“: so goes one refrain. It should be funny, but it really isn’t, quite. “Schnitzel Boogie” is a paean to late night eating at Wienerschnitzel and just as strange as that should be. It’s the most obscured thing on the record, the sound crushed and fuzzy, as if it’s halfway decomposed and coming apart. It closes with three minutes of harmony vocals and the word schnitzel screechingly sung over and over again atop a grotty bassline walking back and forth. It’s deranged, but it’s also moving in an unattributable manner.
“Goodbye American Primitive” is my favorite song from Mature Themes at the moment. It’s not because it in any clear way picks up on Pink’s belief that he is carrying on some all but dead tradition. It’s got an earworm of a melody, but it’s got an edge to it, through interruption, by way of injected lyrics: “Guantanamo Bay,” on its own, standing for evil, but something else, something vague as well. Then there are these lines: “If that isn’t me / then North Korea is me.” These allusions don’t feel forced. They feel like part of a sense of the world that is pervasive, a sense of dark forces at work behind whatever moments of aesthetic transcendence can be cobbled together. The song ends up abruptly, interrupted with finality by “Live It Up.”
In the liner notes for the Brazilian songs David Byrne compiled as Beleza Tropical in 1988, he writes that “The `lightness’ of much Brazilian pop music is often mistaken for American middle-of-the-road bland radio ballads. We have come to associate lightness, subtlety and easy rhythms with shallowness and music without guts.” The situation is of course otherwise now, but inevitably this problem is still alive today, what is pop as in pleasant has to be cut with something darker or more abrasive to be taken seriously. To be taken seriously, anyway, not as an exercise in ironic inclusiveness. Ariel Rosenberg’s project is a project of sublime degeneration, of the primitive and pristine, and the confusion continues as to whether he is more concerned with making art using pop songs or making “good” songs, whatever that may mean to him at a given moment. It’s a confusion worth keeping around.