Wilson's Smile and Dylan's Basement Tapes in under two years: The abbreviated half-life of a 21st century outsider artist.
Worn Copy deserves a place in a museum, stored in a vitrine and observed with hushed regard. It's indisputably a pure burst of unmatched, solitary creativity. The only question left is which one: the Folk Art Museum or the Museum of Television and Radio.
On the side of the short-wave buffs, Worn Copy is a premier example of the influence radio has had on American culture. The 75 minutes of song pastiche bear the influence of popular rock, dance, and soul from the latter half of the twentieth century, but not the clear sound of new vinyl on a hi-fi, or the blasting electricity of a live performance. This is an album written by someone whose primary source of music must have been a radio. The sounds phase in and out, their volumes changing as if the signal has briefly disappeared. The tones are fuzzy and muted, with the same lack of highs and lows that brought AM radio to its knees at the arrival of the sharper FM. Songs switch styles as abruptly as a listless hand surfing the stations.
The songwriter and musician, Ariel Pink, who created and recorded Worn Copy almost entirely on his own, mixes psychedelic '60s rock, '70s Californian jazz-funk, and '80s pop of Duran Duran and the Cars. These 8-track recordings can be both deceptively accomplished and then suddenly drop all pretense of technique, such as in the reverb-heavy "One on One", which feels like a meeting of the minds between the Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane.
Like most of us, Pink seems to have received the majority of his early exposure to popular music through radio, whether the faint sounds of college stations or the afternoon drive-time rock station. An impressive aspect of this influence is the incorporation into his songs of an essential element of commercial radio: the commercials. The track "Credit" turns a satirical commercial jingle into the song's core melodic hook, as inane and insanely unforgettable as any real one. "Cable Access Follies", a trashcan funk track with layered, bass vocals, emotionally glorifies the joys of cable TV.
His record might be a useful cultural artifact for the Smithsonian, but as an artist he clearly seems more comfortable in the realm of outsider artists rather than the gallery establishment. Pink seems almost begging to be labeled a "freak." The publicity photo that came with the CD showed Pink shirtless and strung out, his contorted face covered in what I have to assume is only stage blood. His combination of self- and mass-produced elements to create an original yet uncomfortably familiar final work makes for an easy fit with the outsider art of such visual artists as Henry Darger and Eugene Von Bruenchenheim. Like these solitary artists, Pink created hundreds of songs by himself. The lengthy Worn Copy is nothing compared to the potential magnum opus he might have arranged.
But Pink is not a freak. Outsider status is just like any other artistic authenticity debate -- cool, punk, and now freak are intangible labels that can really only be conferred posthumously. Pink is very much alive, and no longer a misunderstood loner. For one, he's enjoying some moderate recognition while still alive, something most outsider artists almost by definition never do. Darger and Bruenchenheim might never have been moved to create such vast collections of bizarre artwork if they had been given attention in their own time (Darger's drawings might easily have got him arrested, even). Like Devendra Banhart, another young singer crowned with the dubious appellation of "freak," a continuing, successful career as a musician almost instantly tarnishes the crown.
Worn Copy is a reissue of an older record, its material recorded in 2002 and 2003. His first record for Paw Tracks, The Doldrums, appeared last year but was recorded between 1999 and 2000. What can come next? The music of 1997 to 1998, or will Pink be able to return to his hermitage in California and, impervious to his recent shades of success and attention, create another epic ramble as compelling and singular as Worn Copy? I'm not sure what effect it might have on the man's sanity, but for the listener's sake I can't help but wish that he'd been left undiscovered for a few more years, able only to tune in to his own inner bandwidth for comfort.