By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)
Go ahead and stow the Zappa comparisons, they were superficial at best and have been a blight on Ariel Pink’s image ever since Animal Collective took him in as a stray folkie in the early 2000s. All throughout his career, Zappa’s asshole utilitarianism was churlish and transparent and, when rivaled with Pink’s jerkoff affectionism, fails to inspire any humanism in his formidable body of work. One hundred-plus albums in Frank’s catalogue and not a single lyric more affecting than Ariel’s “I wish I was taller than 5’4”” from the title track to Mature Themes. The closest he ever got was “You didn’t try to call me/…Didn’t you know I was lonely?“ But he didn’t really mean it.
Though misguided for the most part, critics’ adamancy of Frank Zappa reference points in Pink’s music isn’t totally unfounded; both artists strive(d) to reappropriate ‘60s and ‘70s pop music hallmarks and cede them to their freak constituents by way of experimental, often kitsch, songwriting. But while Zappa used idiosyncrasy to elucidate the already blatant vapidity of consumer culture of those decades, Ariel plunders from bygone musical trends in search of resonant sincerity, not self-important irreverence. So here on Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, Pink finds himself vacillating between the deadpan romantic and the straight-faced satirist personae that he’s been embodying for his last few releases.
Beginning with Time to Meet Your God, a Kraftwerk-reminiscent number featuring a characteristically urgent Pink warning of an impending day of reckoning, Bobby Jameson furthers the singer’s propensity for off-kilter subject matter and instrumentation. Ever ready to pay homage to his forebears, Pink runs the gamut of his impressively wide breadth of influences and distills them into an accessible collection of freak-pop indulgences. By the time we reach the title track, Ariel has already aped The Cure (Feels Like Heaven), flirted with ‘70s funk (Death Patrol), and doubled down on Bowie’s pop-inflected Krautrock (Santa’s in the Closet), all while maintaining his trademark vocal detachment.
Though the L.A. singer often uses aloofness to temper his experimental tendencies, it never detracts from the self-evident emotion on Dedicated. On the album’s eponymous track, he incorporates an ostensibly ironic backing “Hey!” after each utterance of the line “He was a Tinsel Town tranny,” though Pink never compromises the song’s pathos as he pays tribute to the titular failed 1960s folk star. Bobby Jameson’s career was wrought with missteps and personal tragedy, and when rhapsodized by Pink, his legacy becomes one of a misunderstood genius, similar to psych-rock acid casualties Skip Spence and Syd Barrett. This is perhaps the greatest difference between Pink and Zappa; while Frank wrote off his drug-addled contemporaries as weak-minded and self-debasing, Ariel searches for the human element of these characters. He may have been “a dejected bum, an alien,” but Bobby Jameson was, in Pink’s eyes, one of the “Angles of Sunset Boulevard.”
Despite the undeniably human element of Dedicated, much of the rest of the album employs Ariel’s well-worn egotism. Reaching its self-parodic peak on the song Dreamdate Narcissist, Pink assumes the role of the navel-gazing lothario, abusing all of the modern amenities that facilitate the so-called “hookup culture” with a tad too much self-awareness to make a definitive statement on contemporary romance. At other turns, however, Ariel engages in fruitless self-pity, as on Another Weekend, wherein Pink tries, in vain, to alleviate his loneliness with relentless brooding. Even on the elated, Vaselines-esque Bubblegum Dreams, gratification is intangible, ephemeral, and, above all, gratingly saccharine. And as revealed on Acting, chasing pleasure is a hollow endeavor, as it is unable to yield fulfilment or self-realization. The album’s namesake may be a heartening “In Memoriam” to a forgotten iconoclast, but make no mistake, Dedicated is yet another exercise in Ariel Pink’s self-examination.
As a songwriter, Ariel Pink doesn’t exhibit a linear progress so much as he wantonly treads new musical territories within each album. With or without his Haunted Graffiti cohorts, Pink is more comfortable dipping his toes in a new genre rather than diving headfirst into uncharted aural waters. This is why his songs often seem mercurial when aggregated together on an album. Pink may wander through a myriad of genres and styles, but his understanding of the assets and limitations of pop music guides him and keeps him grounded through his dogged musical nomadism. Just as he says on Do Yourself a Favor, “Seek and you shall find.”