Ariel Pink's last album was a coming out of sorts, a startling take on the hypnagogic pop he helped to invent by mixing faux-retro pastiche with strikingly accurate facsimiles of the sort of '60s pop he's been taking cues from since day one. 2010's Before Today not only provided Pink with the highest recording values of his career but finally cut through his alienating weirdness with tried-and-tested classicist melodies. Mature Themes, his second album for 4AD, shows him sharpening his showy side even further but still keeps one foot staunchly in the "weird" camp, leaving an album of extraordinary highs mixed with sometimes frustrating plateaus.
Mature Themes contains all the sorts of little sketches associated with Haunted Graffiti. All sorts of niches are well-represented, from pseudo surf-rock in "Kinski Assassin" and synth-led power-pop in the title track, to humid psychedelic rock in "Early Birds of Babylon" and the best Byrds track never written in "Only in My Dreams." Pink's almost unsettling mastery of timbre is key to the appeal of these tracks, the latter succeeding not just because of its sunny melody but boxy, stuffy production right out of Columbia Records circa 1965. The vocals on Mature Themes are encased in the same coat of dust that makes reedy voices like Roger McGuinn's sound friendly, even anthemic. Meanwhile penultimate track "Nostradamus & Me" is glazed-over drone where Pink uses his distinctly close atmospherics to create a shimmering dalliance out of his usual ingredients of rudimentary synthesizers and a patient rhythm section.
However, Mature Themes lacks an outright anthem like the last album's "Round and Round" nor are there stadium-sized hooks like "Can't Hear My Eyes." Instead, Pink focuses his attention on getting each little sonic landscape just right—the album is immersive rather than titillating, aesthetically impressive instead of visceral. He's still as in touch with his "new weird America" side as ever, from the odd little diversions of "Early Birds of Babylon" (the chants of "hey! how does he do that?") to the overlong "Schnitzel Boogie" (imagine Neil Young's "T-Bone" descending into a haze of unpleasant distortion). The album's back half is almost aggressively strange compared to the inviting first, and by the time the bizarre conceits of "Symphony of the Nymph" and "Farewell American Primitive" roll around, you're probably wondering where the jangle of "Only In My Dreams" went.
It's not as if Mature Themes is exactly a disappointment; it just feels like Pink is edging off from the fame he almost instigated with "Round & Round," retreating into familiar (and often unfriendly) climes. The album has a swampy, overheated feel, which takes some of the impact away from its sharper moments but enhances its more languid stretches. It ends with its best track (almost an afterthought following the stoned mirage of "Nostradamus & Me") a breathtaking cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson's obscure 1978 artifact "Baby" already memorably covered earlier this year by Hyperdub duo Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland. They took the song's slacked-jawed innocence and turned it alien, but here in Pink's hands it's an afterhours devotional, stretching out to four minutes of aching vocals and spidery guitar lines. It shows that Pink's ear for unabashed pop remains as strong as ever. He's just not letting it run completely free anytime soon.