[9 June 2010]
There’s probably nothing I can say about Ariel Pink that hasn’t been said better by Mike Powell, my nomination for Pink biographer should the occasion arise. An early champion of works like The Doldrums and House Arrest by Pink and his imaginary band the Haunted Graffiti, Powell nevertheless grew weary of the seemingly endless array of home-recorded reissues that surfaced after his first appearance on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint. It has been said that Pink has not released any new material since 2004, meaning that his entire sojourn into the spotlight and under the microscope occurred during a time when he wasn’t even writing music (This isn’t entirely true; there was a brief stint in the scatological side projects Holy Shit and Shits and Giggles). As the archives grew dry, it seemed like Pink was destined to fade, as he himself had decidedly preordained. His lost basement pop/ obscured-photo/ tattered record sleeve persona seemed as much a deterministic rule as an autonomous construct.
What an odd time then for 4AD to bring him on board for Before Today, his debutante vie for a “mainstream” audience. When the signing was announced, the label seemed to be an oddly perfect home for the nomadic artist. It was not that Pink somehow matched wits and prowess with rostermate peers like TV on the Radio, Serena Maneesh, or the Big Pink. Rather, the Haunted Graffiti seemed to be carrying on a tradition of a visionary entropic pop celebrated from the label’s earliest post-punk releases on through its triumphant dreampop run. Pink shared with 4AD a distantiation and a corresponding jouissance that emerged from a shattered surface, a presence eradicated from the imminent and diffused into pure radiance.
Unlike, say, the Cocteau Twins or A.R. Kane though, Pink’s racket did not involve the implosion of the ego into an ethereal haze. His recordings were always as much about himself as anything else. But this was the self classified as an artifact, as warbly tape, as a half-forgotten memory. It was this that earned him a rightful entry into early discussions of hauntology and, later, chillwave, for which he serves as a kind of godfather figure (a title he proudly accepts, though the only minions he seems to be keen on are John Maus, Gary War, and Nite Jewel). Pink’s songs are of a visceral sadness and carry with them a loneliness forced by the process of degrading the ideal, a self-denial that avoids, by way of a textural and conceptual frame, seduction into the world of fake tans that surrounded him growing up in Beverly Hills.
The “Ariel Pink” of the relentless reissue series was some kind of grandiose lunatic workhorse whose passion seemed poised for Hollywood glam if only he could put down the drugs, unplug the Nintendo, throw away the old pizza boxes, and make good on the epic promise of his obsessive vision. The man’s works were positioned with self-sabotage, weird little asides, proggy interludes with sloppy dexterity, haphazard jokes, chipmunk voices, and overdriven, lossy, monophonic squeals. At times, it seemed like he was trying to make it intentionally difficult to sing along with songs that otherwise could have been hits. “I’ve had opportunities/ I missed them all,” Pink says on Before Today’s “Little Wig”. Pink, poised eternally in a budget eight-track, was, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, exactly where he belonged.
At some point late in the last decade, Powell stated that “Ariel Pink’s music… is music whose imperfections actually are its selling point: Without them, it would sound like the sweatless work of studio hacks; with them, it sounds like a horrorshow” (Ariel Pink; Grandes Exitos, Pitchfork, 1 May 2009). Where then does that leave Before Today, a studio album with polish and spit from studio hacks like producers Sunny Levine (Quincy Jones’ grandson) and Rik Pekkonen (who has produced countless AOR/MOR schlockfests) and a real live backing band substituting for Pink’s one man Haunted Graffiti? Pink now loudly exclaims that this is his “first” album (“proper” hidden from that phrase in equivocation), but the recycling shenanigans Powell rightfully lamented are still at play here too. No less than five of the album’s 12 songs were previously released in alternate forms (“L’Estat (Acc. to the Widow’s Maid)”, “Beverly Kills”, “Can’t Hear My Eyes”, “Reminiscences”, and “Revolution’s a Lie” and one of them is a cover (“Bright Lit Blue Skies”, a garage nugget recorded by the Rockin’ Ramrods in 1966). Even, the album title, Before Today was already the name of a track off of Oddities Sodomies Vol. 1.
Let’s go back to Powell’s description for a second: “music whose imperfections actually are its selling point”. Powell may have been talking here about the physicality of the tracks, the “imperfections” inherent in the atmosphere and aura, but Pink’s latest imperfection would now appear to be his inability to stop self-replicating. As such, he’s turned reliving the past, particularly his own past, into an art form. Theory be damned, Before Today might just be his best work to date and an easy contender for album of the summer 1979, album of the year 2006, and album of Pink’s career (slight reprise).
It’s a bit of buzzkill to think about great albums like Worn Copy as warm-ups to this, but Before Today does shine with a pop acuity unparalleled in his back catalogue. If Pink is to believed that his aim all along was to be a rock star, then he is perhaps the Marilyn Manson to Animal Collective’s Nine Inch Nails, substituting of course grinding anti-clerical ruination for pre-pubescent psychedelic obfuscation. Some may have enjoyed the melancholy masquerade too much to accept Pink as the star his recordings argued he was, but Before Today is living proof, an album full of tunes, riffs, and arrangements that are as infectious as chlamydia on the sunset strip. At 12 tracks, it’s a first for Pink only in that it’s marked more by restraint than indulgence. Though that’s not to say that indulgence does not make an appearance.
Gone is the beatboxing that Pink used to use for drums, but little else gets substituted on Before Today. The mix just gets slightly clarified and sharpened. Amazingly, removing the dust and debris does not render Pink’s music obsolete, as Powell and others have suggested it might have were this day to come. It helps too that Pink doesn’t entirely retreat from the project of aging and sonically mystifying these enigmatic tracks. L.A. smog hazes up the boards at points. Opener “Hot Body Rubdown” is thick with exhaust like some nightmare out of Thatcher’s great car economy. Hot sax blares in like the start of some exploitation flick set at a sleazy dive bar, fueling mystique for the album to come.
“Fright Night (Nevermore)” also maintains this foggy property, the glowing synth and surface fuzz making the ghastly narrative less a B-Movie chill than a sleepover party recollection. It’s the cut that most invokes old school Haunted Graffiti. “I used to talk to demons with my Ouija board”, Pink intones in a baritone, answering in falsetto with “Not anymore”. Like much of the album, “Fright Night (Nevermore)” finds Pink shedding his skin, indicating a surrender from both his shyness and the “horrorshow” indicated by Powell in lines like “I used to hide underneath tables, but not anymore”.
The version of “Bright Lit Blue Skies” improves on the original by intensifying the arrangement with, among other things, vocal harmonies, which just happens to be very in vogue right now. In an ever out-of-time album, it may seem odd that Before Today’s most prescient song is a cover of a tune from 1966, but what this suggests is less clear. Are our times out-of-touch and is Ariel Pink symptomatic of that? Or is Ariel Pink so hopelessly out-of-synch that he’s actually very in-touch with our out-of-time present, the postmodern eternal now, which seems to only exist in reference to sometime else, sometime before today?
“Can’t Hear My Eyes” is pitch-perfect jazz lounge-tinged MOR, Pink’s Hall and Oates dream realized. Among other things, the song has a touch of the Alan Parson Project’s “Eye In the Sky” hinted at in the melody and a smooth sax solo that really means it, which reads like a nightmare on paper, but feels like a sweet dream on headphones. The lyrics reveal a disconnection not between epochs of time, but rather between the senses. “I can’t hear my eyes/ They don’t speak/ They just despise”, Pink says. Traditionally, it’s the ears which deceive and manipulate due to the human animal’s poor abilities to echolocate, but here Pink finds vision just as unreliable a sensory perceptor if not more. Unable to listen to what his eyes are telling him, Pink posits that it’s hearing rather than seeing which is believing. “I gotta get a blindfold and close my eyes/ Before I get a look at you”. In a world mediated by images, the preconceptions of the eyes mean less with regards to amorous advances than the ambiguity of the ear. To the autistic auteur musician, the ear is the ultimate erotic cavity.
The productions of Before Today have a definite theatricality to them, but not that kind of acquired taste absurdism present on previous discs. The wah-wah-fueled stop-start dynamics of “Beverly Kills” begin off with sirens whining in what seems to be a car chase. The Alice Cooper art-pop of “Butt House Bumbies” is another horrorshow that could be named after the porno that haunts an aspiring young actress who “used to care” and now “thinks that she’s doomed”. The coital moans which curl underneath thrashing guitars are like some apparitional shadow following the poor girl around.
Perhaps just as good as the many flourishes within the songs themselves are the laconic little introductions. The power prog pop tale of murder and possession in “L’Estat (Acc. to the Widow’s Maid)” is led-in by six seconds of war drum banging and hex-like chanting. “Little Wig” soars vividly with majestic stringed bridges, twinkly piano verses, and a bid to be the small screen version of King Crimson’s hi-def. Yet, the song would be nothing without its ladder-climbing commencement of pounding guitar and drum stabs and intensifying banshee wails.
One would be remiss not to mention “Round and Round”, lead single and album centerpiece. A brilliant multi-phased triumph led by a groovy bassline a whisper away from “Billie Jean”, “Round and Round” is so pitch-perfect that it could mark Pink’s place in history even if the rest of his legacy were erased. Both soft rock and totally freaky, it’s a summer jam in waiting, a mix-tape completer, and a merry-go-round that will go up and around your head for the next several months.
On “Menopause Man”, Pink’s androgynous narrator is “Trying too hard to be yourself/ You’re trying too hard to be what you are”. No one could accuse Pink of trying too hard these past couple years, but Before Today has shown that a little effort and a little elbow grease are not the end of the world. In fact, it’s a wonderful fit for an artist who specializes in making banalized standards of pop music eccentric again. For someone intent to only show us the past in pieces or himself in new forms, Pink has an amazing ability to surprise and does so again and again on Before Today.