Ariel Pink’s Teenage Symphonies

Ariel Pink has never been easy to digest. Viewed by critics and fans alike as a scuzzed-out L.A. drug zombie, his music can come off as confusing, charged full of pop hooks, nonsensical lyrics, unexplainable instrumental wanderings and spoken-word interruptions, and a fair dose of 60s folk-pop references. Many of his songs would fare well alongside The Byrds and Donovan on am radio, while others are so bizarre and nonsensical that they make The Butthole Surfers seem as chart-friendly as The Everly Brothers.

It’s hard to know where to put him in the pop lexicon, but like all successful songwriters, his appeal lies in his ability to forge new ground while keeping one foot firmly rooted in traditionalism. Ever since landing a record deal with Animal Collective’s startup label Paw Tracks in 2003 he’s been on a steady upswing, releasing select work from his back catalog before moving to 4AD and blowing up with 2010’s artistic and critical breakthrough Before Today. That record cemented Pink’s reputation as the idiot savant of lo-fi bedroom pop, something like the 21st Century’s answer to Brian Wilson: an erratic pop craftsman in his early 30s writing near-perfect songs about people in their early 20s for people in their teens romanticize and obsess over.

“Round and Round”, the lead single from Before Today, has become the “Good Vibrations” for the twenty-something crowd. Former Girls’ frontman Christopher Owens called him our generation’s greatest songwriter, and the critics are on board. Pink himself said that the song was a mashup of three separate tracks he had written over a decade-long period, a process that would serve you well to keep in mind when listening to his music. On his latest, 2012’s Mature Themes, tracks change direction without warning (“Is This The Best Spot?”), lyrics make absolutely no sense, at least on a front-brain level (“Kinski Assassin”, “Farewell American Primitive”), while perfect pop nuggets fly out of nowhere (“Mature Themes”, “Baby”, “If Only In My Dreams”. His live shows are notoriously unpredictable. It can get confusing, but that’s part of the fun. Either way, what he’s doing is hard to put down and walk away from. More often than not, you ask yourself, is Ariel Pink an idiot or a genius? His entire career seems to be casually answering your question with a question: can’t it be both?

Ariel Pink plays Irving Plaza in New York on June 6th.

Lane Koivu