Avant-Pop sensation Ariel Pink has now been writing music for a little over two decades. In that time, he’s moved from making underground Lo-fi Rock to clean, throwback Hypnogogic Pop. He’s been a source of controversy, venerated by some as a progenitor of Chillwave and derided by others as the lowest form of ironic hipster shit. On the latter point—he’s received increasing amounts of flak from critics and other artists, including Grimes, for his ostensible public misogyny. Say what you will about his personality and celebrity—his work has unquestionably pushed the bounds of contemporary Pop, and his new record Dedicated to Bobby Jameson continues that trend.
It’s a brilliant exercise in Pink’s brand of subtly recontextualized ‘70s and ‘80s music—but more specifically, it succeeds in blending a certain unsettling darkness with that signature sound without sounding corny. Several tracks succeed in simultaneously sounding like they came from a ‘70s Halloween compilation’ and being legitimately frightening. Take “Santa’s in the Closet,” for example: Pink murmurs vague frights in his best Dracula voice over what first appears to be an innocuous two-chord progression on thin organ synths and pumping bass. But over three minutes, the sheer monotony of the track transforms its premise as the black humor of the joke premise becomes unsettling. The opener, “Time to Meet Your God” uses a similar technique to instill fear—it uses weird time signatures and beat patterns that keep restarting—as if a New Order record got stuck repeating the first verse. Pink’s voice takes on a conscious David-Byrne-like affect in its playfully morbid, delectably paranoid proclamations. Its smooth ambient bridge gives the band a break from the technicality, and adds some surprising dynamic depth to the song. Both tracks take their idée fixe premise to uncanny, disturbing extremes. The album’s longest track “Time to Live” takes that song structure and intention to another level: it opens with an anthemic revelry, which devolves into a frantic noise clearly recalling No Wave before returning to the song proper—which sounds like Martin Gore talking underneath a Shoegaze march—about three minutes in.
On the other hand, there are plenty of moments of more traditional pop bliss. “Feels Like Heaven” is Ariel Pink’s best attempt at making a Smith’s song—he does a great Morrissey croon with a faithful fake Manchester accent. The lead single, “Another Weekend” starts like a stoned modern take on “All Along the Watchtower,” before an abrupt tempo, time, and chord shift in its chorus, the only effect of which is to make the song sound even more stoned (it’s easy to hear why some credit Ariel Pink with the invention to Chillwave). “Bubblegum Dreams,” as the title implies, sounds like a Dream Pop revision of the Beach Boys and Jangle Pop all at the same time, with Black Moth Super Rainbow lyrics to boot.
A few tracks take a funkier approach, like the closer “Acting” and “Death Patrol.” The latter could be worked as the intro to a ‘70s cop-duo sitcom without much effort—its thin AM-radio bass and Lo-fi Disco strings immediately recall images of bell-bottom jeans and thick mustaches. “Acting”’s sexy vocoders, slinking bass synths, and staccato guitar blend together to make the most Prince-sounding song Ariel Pink will ever write. Echoes of Beck’s ironic parody of R&B on Midnite Vultures abound.
Considering its different styles all at once, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson reimagines the ‘70s as a series of vignettes, some nightmarish, some soothing, but all with a Post-Modern self-awareness that always seems to be looking forward more than backward—some people may listen to Ariel Pink as nostalgia-rock, but he always tends to twist the variegated genres he explores out of their roots and repurpose them to his own ends. Taken as a whole, the album is a bit unfocused except in its fixation with the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but one is left impressed more with an image of Pink as a Renaissance man, not a jack-of-all-trades. It remains another high-quality work from one of the most divisive, perplexing, and innovative songwriters of our time.