Sometimes I like to imagine what Ariel Pink is like on a day off — polishing off a Veggie Delight and sipping a Diet Coke at Subway, maybe watching It’s Complicated on the sofa with his mom. These scenes are utterly hilarious to me, because few artists have worn their outsider status as proudly and boldly as Pink. The erratic live showings (see this performance for Viva Radio), the blusterous remarks about Jewish identity to Heeb magazine, the generally disheveled and outlandish personal style — they’ve all served to mark Pink as too weird, too wonky, too off-center to be lumped in with the fashion-focused, cool-conscious crowd his new album, Before Today, is being marketed to (seriously, do we have to call it chillwave?).
Pink calls Before Today his “first” album. The statement is technically very false, despite the fact that this is the first record to feature Haunted Graffiti as an “actual” band, contributing unique parts to Pink’s soft-focus vision. Moreover, Before Today feels like the culmination of Pink’s past output. Whereas Worn Copy and House Arrest buried their 70s and 80s soft-rock lineage under a blur of hiss and noise, Before Today presents them with laser-disc clarity; listen no further than single “Round and Round,” with its Police-style verse and gigantic, Peter Gabriel-esque chorus, “Hold on/ I’m calling/ Calling back to the boat.” It’s the best song of the year, hands down, not a “Pedestrian Pop Hit,” but an honest-to-goodness pop hit.
It’s a standout cut on an album full of them. Before Today finds Pink and crew oscillating between a bounty of influences. “Butt-House Blondies” riffs like Blue Öyster Cult, with Pink exploring the moment in time when major labels titled AOR comps with ridiculous “Heavy Metal” names. “Little Wig” struts like prime-Bowie, but somehow manages to integrate the washy themes of the “Berlin Trilogy” into its Spiders From Mars boogie. “Menstrual Man” walks a taut line borrowed from “Psycho Killer” and embellishments on loan from Thriller for some of the record’s most inspired genre/gender confusion, with Pink intoning, “Rape me/ Castrate me/ Make me gay.”
The album stabs at two wordless songs: opener “Hot Body Rub,” which finds Pink soul-grunting over “Back in the U.S.S.R.”/”I Am the Six O’Clock News” takeoff noises and softcore saxophone; and “Reminiscences,” smooth-as-silk music for that elevator that takes you between floors at Urban Outfitters, recalling the movement in rock history that found erstwhile proggers like Yes and Genesis toning down the ambition of their compositions to great success. Not everything on the record is as cleaned as the rest: “Beverly Kills” and “Fright Night (Nevermore)” mine 80s R&B veins with buttery synths coursing beneath Pink’s echoed, muffled melodies.
The record has two more undeniable singles. “Bright Lit Blues Skies” is a cover of a tune by obscure garage band The Rising Storm. Haunted Graffiti play it remarkably straight and tight, offering striking harmonies and an awesome freakbeat breakdown, while Pink is provided the opportunity to genuinely show off his voice. When he chooses to really sing, not just mumble or smear notes, the results are marvelously crooning. The other obvious single is “Can’t Hear My Eyes,” a re-recording of his Mexican Summer A-side from 2008, but it’s actually the record’s biggest disappointment, one song where the original’s blurred edges are far superior to this record’s spit-shined version. That’s not to say that the song isn’t airtight, a sexy (if silly) slow-burner. In fact, despite there existing a superior recording, the results are still pretty stunning: “I want a lady as beautiful/ As a sunset on a strip,” Pink comes on with his best blue-eyed soul impression.
Somewhere beneath all the smooth sounds, I’m sure there’s a review where I examine the way in which irony has pervaded every facet of both our listening experience and our perception of artists like Ariel Pink. I’m sure that, if I dug around long enough, I’d be able to make some sort of grand statement about “yacht rock” being the “new punk.” I’ve done it before with records as willingly “smooth” and “cheesy” as Before Today, and I’m sure I’ll wind up falling into the trap again in the future. But I can’t manage any of that this time, because it would just detract from the overarching point: Before Today is the best collection of pure pop songs released this year, and the experimental odds and bits only add to its considerable charm.