Ariel Pink Revisited

Nick Sylvester | November 10th, 2010

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Today I begin a project I’ve been meaning to for a while: relistening to albums I reviewed years ago, and reevaluating my opinions. It’ll be an occasional thing, or a mini-series, I can’t decide. What pushed me off the diving board here was a screening of Jackass 3D this past Sunday. A good friend of mine had brought his friend, who is a Pitchfork videographer, to the theater, and after a handshake this was the first thing he said to me: Two years ago, was in the middle of shooting a performance of L.A. lo-fi artist Ariel Pink, when Pink launched into a rant, roughly: “So who the fuck is Nick Sylvester? And why would you let him compare my debut album to ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic?” I had given the record, 2004’s The Doldrums LP, a 5.0; this is considered a low rating.

Pink has become more popular in the last six years, and his new album, Before Today, received a handsome 9.0 review courtesy Mark Richardson this past June. That Pink would have brought up my review of his debut years later implies, to me, that he thought I had somehow delayed his ascent. The nature of his music hasn’t changed much in six years, he might add, only crystallized. This coming Saturday, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti co-headlines Webster Hall.

So here I am. Reviewing the review, I see I couldn’t decide whether Pink was genius or if, by calling him genius, I was only saying that I was genius for establishing a framework to call him genius. Apparently I split the difference: 5.0 out of 10.0. The elements of Pink’s music — throwaway AM radio melodies; hissy, reverb-laden productions that simulated the decay of recorded artifacts; the recording as fragment, hinting at what it could be; a reappraisal of New Age — were far more enjoyable to mull over, I remember, than the album was to listen to. I thought these elements were born of poverty, or in service of persona, or both. Ariel Pink, as I thought, was a “crazy” guy, singing “normal” songs.

Not many people liked this record, I recall, but I would have been in good company — Simon Reynolds’, Mike Powell’s — were I to sign off. Pink’s record set off fantastic ideas about music and sound and how it is heard and composed. But the physical act of listening to Pink’s music left me nauseous. Looking at the original draft of the review I sent the site’s editor, on October 25, 2004 at 12:19 a.m., my last line had read like this: “I really don’t know if this is something I can slap a number on just yet.” The line was cut because, I was told, the site doesn’t like “fretting publically over the score stuff.” Sic.

I re-listened to Pink’s debut yesterday a few times. I hear decisions in a way I admit I didn’t at first, and I hear evidence of Pink asking himself the same question every recording artist asks himself in one way or another: How can I make the banal seem surprising again? There’s mouth percussion instead of drums. The bass is mushy and unarticulated, functioning more like a spread of sound than an instrument. Pink’s vocals are awash in all kinds of reverb, and his voice itself has a theatrical ‘sad’ crooner vibe to it, as if Pink is one of Nathanael West’s grotesques in The Day Of The Locust. There is strong hiss throughout the recording. It is dusty, mid-forward, woozy stuff, as if “rescued” from damaged cassette tapes. All these decisions work together to resituate Pink’s melodies, which are bright like commercial jingles that, in his songs, sound uneasy and melancholic. Therein lies the romantic quality of The Doldrums that, I think, excites Pink the most. These are complete songs for the most part, but fragment-like in the way he leaves his recordings unpolished, in the double distance he simulates between (a) the song and the disintegrated recording, then (b) the recording and the listener. The songs are echoes of grander times; these melodies, before they were put to work for some new kind of soap, were once beautiful and affecting. There was a time we didn’t just shake them off.

[pullq: align=”left”]We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.[/pullq]

None of this means I enjoy listening to Pink’s music. The music still strikes me as cold and clinical and conceptual, indirect and dispassionate. There is an emotional distance in Pink’s music — even the more masterfully recorded, widely praised Before Today — that leaves me unsatisfied. His music communicates less as sound-music music (Sound Music), and more as set-of-ideas-about-music music (Idea Music). The balance might be 20% to 80%, let’s say, with the necessary wiggle room given the fact that this distinction is pretty arbitrary. Either way: Without a theory to go with it, I can’t hear Pink’s song.

And again, I don’t remember many other people hearing Pink’s song either. But in the last six years, since Pink came on the radar courtesy Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, a Theory has been developed. Building off ideas that Simon Reynolds threw out there originally, Britain’s The Wire called this kind of lo-fi music Hypnagogic Pop. The paragraph before the last one I submit as evidence of the vocabulary and ‘hip’ Theory that critics are using to make sense of a lot of popular lo-fi recording outfits. Both The Wire and Pitchfork credit Pink as the Velvet Underground influence for this movement of young artists who make music “refracted through the memory of a memory,” that “draws its powers from 1980s pop culture,” but is at heart ahistorical stuff because it is so self-absorbed: the way I remember it, or my memory of the Ducktales theme song, which is just as good as your memory of how the theme song went, and so on. And since most people I imagine are encountering Hypnagogic Pop songs via blogs and other recommendation sites on the internet, download links alongside Variations Of The Theory and sometimes Video Interpretations Of The Theory…

Well now! I will resist the temptation to ask, if only rhetorically, how much music has been created since then as performance of The Theory, now that it’s become The Way We Talk About This Kind Of Music. Especially because “half-remembered memory” is such a personal, inalienable right the hypnagogic pop artist exercises, there is technically no wrong way to make h-pop. You cannot fail. The signifier of memory, in this music, is its imperfection, the relative haziness and lack of directness in the music. As long as the h-pop or chillwave critic can discern elements of “memory” or “nostalgia” or “hazy, reverb-laden vibe” or “half-sung melodies refracted through the quarter-remembered chopper blades of the opening sequence of Airwolf as I fell asleep in my basement,” no worries, we’ll take it from here. We have replaced the word “derivative,” which is negative, with “nostalgic,” which connotes nothing.

[pullq: align =”left”]Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?[/pullq]

So instead I will ask whether hypnagogic pop is a rare triumph of music critics over musicians, meaning this: Is it even possible to make hypnagogic pop that is more interesting than (or as groundbreaking as) The Theory about hypnagogic pop? Will half-remembered Airwolf music ever be as good as the phrase “half-remembered Airwolf music”? How long till The Wire cuts a Theory for Mountain Dew Green Label?

When I first encountered Pink — or really any ‘difficult’ Mostly Idea Music type artist — I admit there is pleasure in figuring out what a song or an artist is “about.” What the artist wants to get across, etc. It can feel like an alley-oop, the way the Artist throws up the Idea Music ball and I, the Critic, slam it into the…hoop? (I don’t watch basketball; this is my hypnagogic take on the sport.) It is possible that other people — not critics — have similarly positive and completely satisfying experiences in sublimating music they don’t like via frameworks that allow them to understand how they could like it, until they have, in fact, “solved” said record like a math problem. I also think it’s possible that some people just like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and his disciples on simple “like the way this sounds” levels, without even entertaining the Idea Music side. So maybe the best question is: Unless you’re Pink, if you are knowingly making anything that resembles hypnagogic pop, in 2010, aren’t you kinda getting played?

There is a song on Pink’s new record called “Round And Round.” It is considered his best song maybe because it’s his most direct; the sound-music element of “Round and Round” has higher footing with the set-of-ideas-about-music element, yet everything anyone has ever written about Pink still applies. He’s at his best — and I said the same thing about Animal Collective years ago — when he takes his ideas about music for granted and just writes Ariel Pink songs. There is nothing that “Round And Round” is “about,” so much as it is “about” “Round And Round.” Nothing but net. He doesn’t need the hoopla.

The death of hypnagogic pop music, chill wave, fork gaze, whatever we’re calling it, is suddenly easy to fathom. Ariel Pink’s Before Today is maybe the most realized manifestation of all things h-pop. With “Round And Round,” the music has come close to realizing The H-Pop Theory, sans the H-Pop Theorists, which makes the ongoing promotion of it seem somewhat…unsatisfying. What are all these kids doing? Oh, the whole nostalgic-memory-half-remembered-throwaway pop thing? Been there! Derivative of being nostalgic! Whatever!

(Let’s quickly pass over the fact that the signifiers of hypnagogic pop are elements in thousands of great songs that preceded the term — songs that didn’t need the Theory in order for you to understand them. You’re encouraged to check out these two compilations. You’re also encouraged to listen to Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest.)

Brian Eno. Last week, Warp Records released Eno’s Small Craft On A Milk Sea. There exists a short promotional video in which Eno is interviewed by Dick Flash of Pork Magazine, a fictional music critic from the UK. In attempting to ask Eno about his process, Flash ends up talking more about Eno’s music than Eno himself ever gets a chance to. His ambient works, Flash tells Eno, are a “notional micro-climate, a place more than an event.” The critic figured out Eno a long time ago, in other words. We know what Eno is about. Does this makes Eno’s new album less pleasurable to listen to?

Small Craft on a Milk Sea sits surprisingly comfortably alongside the records from Eno’s ambient and experimental golden era,” Pitchfork’s Mark Pytlik wrote last week. “Others might argue that fit is a little too comfortable.” Eno you old coot! The nerve of this guy, giving us no “new music as set-of-ideas music,” just plain old boring “music as ambient-and-experimental-golden-era music.” I mean what am I supposed to do with this shit — just enjoy it?! 7.4!