With the Ariel Pink news cycle for this release, the actual album, pom pom, is nearly lost in shuffle. Pink bluntly discussed being approached to write songs for Madonna, coming off like a misogynist in the process, earning the wrath of feminist songwriter Grimes (among many others). This wasn’t enough to make Pink see the errors of his ways, as a recent interview with The Guardian found him not only defending his comments, but lashing out at Grimes, making himself all the more the villain. In a year when indie music thought Mark Kozelek could see the biggest fall from grace by being overtly offensive, Ariel Pink seems determined to top him.
But, the question remains whether Ariel Pink’s work, particularly pom pom, is good enough to warrant acceptance of such behavior. Is he such a valuable commodity that we need to look past his statements and take the hurtful actions as simply a character flaw of an important artist? Continuing with the comparison to Kozelek, the two would seem to be on par in terms of influence and commercial reach (the former is vast and the latter very much isn’t).
The difference is that Sun Kil Moon released his best album in decades, while Ariel Pink’s pom pom would be hard-pressed to see the same claims made about it. The strange thing about pom pom is it almost seems prophetic and self-referential in all this context. “Mannequins are so afraid,” Pink sings on lead track “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade,” continuing, “don’t be afraid to show your stripes because the mannequins is always right.” Indeed, Pink has always been an instigator, happy at causing discomfort, pushing both buttons and the envelope, both in his performance and his music. The difference is that 2014 music culture is much less interested in putting up with eccentricity, especially when it subjugates others. In the process, the music that previously made Ariel Pink seem on the cutting edge of culture now can feel dated.
All that said, pom pom is probably the most accessible, easy-on-the-ear and enjoyable music of his career, without any asterisks. Pink’s bizarre humor, from a song about freckles (“White Freckles”) to a song about jello (“Jell-o”), hits on the nostalgia, the absurdity and the vanilla nature of mainstream society with a keen eye to detail, his tongue indistinguishable from his cheek. Pink even strikes a moment of pure magic on the album closer “Dayzed Inn Daydreams,” fashioning an earworm adventure as well-rounded and, well, beautiful as “Round and Round,” or anything else he has previously recorded. The female backing singers create a druggy Motown vibe that Foxygen hint at in their live show but have yet to capture completely on record. Pink hits a home run copping the sound of the people he has influenced, and he drops it in the end of pom pom like it ain’t no thing, like he could do this all day if that really interested him. And we believe him. Few have ever doubted the genius of Ariel Pink, but his detractors frequently ask if the payoff is worth it, if we want to love something so dangerous, that can quickly turn on us, like trying to keep a tiger for a pet.
As Pink says, “don’t be afraid to show your stripes.” It’s something he seems to live by, and whether or not he’ll have much of an audience for pom pom when people see the tiger for what he is, well, it probably depends on if you think rock and roll needs to be reckless in order to be rebellious.