Two weeks ago, Adult Swim premiered a bizarre short film entitled “Too Many Cooks” that threw the internet into a frenzy. On its surface, “Too Many Cooks” riffs on the absurd, impractical familial zen of shows like Full House, The Brady Bunch, and Modern Family. But beneath that parody lies a commentary on our collective nostalgia fetish. The beginning of the video introduces the obvious sitcom tropes — constant smiling, oppressively happy theme music, a never-ending cast of characters and side plots — only to have things slowly spiral out of control down a chaotic rabbit hole of cultural signifiers. By its end, “Too Many Cooks” ends up reflecting no time period or feeling at all.
It’s fitting that Ariel Pink’s similarly madcap new solo album, pom pom, is being released while “Too Many Cooks” is still on our minds. Like the Adult Swim short (as well as most of Pink’s prior releases), it relies on nostalgia with its warm, lo-fi production and amalgamation of ’70s soft rock and ’80s synthpop. But if you listen a little closer, pom pom isn’t as blatantly emulative as it appears. It’s full of jarring, melodic twists and garishly sexual lyrics that would never find their way onto a Cat Stevens or Kajagoogoo record. Pink’s album is, arguably, as bracing a product of the 21st century as anything to come out all year, and that’s because, like “Too Many Cooks”, it channels the past via our messy, fast-moving, content-devouring brains of the present.
Take the track “Dinosaur Carebears”, which may be pom pom’s apex of strangeness. It begins with a cacophony of fuzzy synths and wailing guitars splashed over an uptempo beat, then shifts into a distorted circus jingle of keyboard flutes and fleeting, murmuring voices à la the middle passage of “Yellow Submarine”. Then the song changes again, locking into a soft, slinky groove reminiscent of Pink’s song “Fright Night (Nevermore)” from 2010’s breakout record Before Today. Amazingly, all of this occurs in just over five minutes. More importantly, though, all three of these movements are endearing and sublime in their own right. The song’s unpredictable, unfathomable evolution remains a mystery, but there’s beauty and poetry there if you allow yourself to see it. A track like this also helps to accentuate the simple charms in some of pom pom’s quieter, more accessible numbers.
There’s no “Round and Round” here, but some songs come close. First single “Put Your Number in My Phone”, with its sad, swooning melody and coffeehouse acoustic guitars, is one of Pink’s better ballads, while final track “Dayzed Inn Daydreams” could almost pass for a Harry Nilsson cut thanks to its spacey, multilayered chorus and sneaky sense of bleeding-heart urgency. Best of them all is “Picture Me Gone”, a song about preserving memories and how technology obfuscates the past. “I dedicate this selfie to the little guy who might outlast me when I die,” sings Pink underneath a big, booming, reverb-tinged beat that sounds like it was ripped from a Spandau Ballet song. It may not be as manic as “Dinosaur Carebears”, but “Picture Me Gone” serves as a fitting microcosm for pom pom on the whole: It manages to be both timely and timeless thanks to the way it juxtaposes jarring references to “selfies” and “iClouds” with sounds rooted in a bygone musical era.
The fundamental weak point of Pink’s record is also its most engrossing: ambiguity. On a lyric-by-lyric basis, pom pom is bafflingly lascivious. “Come on don your doggie collar/ Bet your bottom dollar/ Come on take your bra and panties off/ You juicy Belladonna,” Pink sings on “Black Ballerina”, a song that also features an uncomfortable spoken word interlude between an older man and a teenage boy in “the number one strip club in LA.” Lines like these force the listener to wonder where exactly Pink’s head is. Is he a sex addict, and is pom pom his wacky confession? Is he a misogynist? Is he trying to be funny?
Because Pink’s record walks a fine tightrope between the amusing and the grotesque, knee-jerk outrage makes sense. It’s important to remember, though, that pom pom is above all a funhouse. Try and analyze it through one lens and you’ll face-plant into a mirror. Like “Too Many Cooks”, it’s discernible and then, suddenly, it’s not. But the surreal, visceral experience in itself is where the fun lies.
Essential Tracks: “Picture Me Gone”, “Dayzed Inn Daydreams”, and “Dinosaur Carebears”