The Anniversary

Before Today Turns 10

It can be hard to remember after a decade of chaotic stage antics, foot-in-mouth interviews, and dazzling studio albums just how offensive Ariel Pink already sounded to people’s ears before he entered the spotlight. By the end of the 2000s, indie rock had nearly reached a breaking point of ornately layered and glossy production. It did not feel that way at the time; it felt like it would just keep going. I was 19 and that past year I had seen LCD Soundsystem perform with Arcade Fire and TV On The Radio play in Central Park. (Their opener Dirty Projectors were relentlessly heckled, but a few weeks later would release Bitte Orca, instantly becoming one of the biggest bands in the country for about a year.) The year 2010 started with a leak of Sleigh Bells’ debut Treats and ended with Kanye West proving he could surely do no wrong. Does this all sound hilariously dated yet?

Before Today doesn’t. It may sound like every carefully arranged layer of 2000s retromania collapsing in on itself or an empty novelty or chaotic garbage — but, partly because of those factors, it always sounds profoundly removed from its era, in a way that few albums from any era do. The thing about garbage is it doesn’t really age, and occasionally, with enough time, someone circles back and recognizes it as treasure. We do this in pop culture all the time with things we find tacky or played out or just not as fresh as a few years ago. Every generation wants to toss certain sounds in our cultural waste bin, but what we often end up actually doing is preserving them in time, in memory, until someone else picks it up. Time bends and folds across Before Today, which is somehow a debut album, a victory lap, and a recycled greatest hits compilation all at once. It’s trash. It’s treasure.

Time might be the most important element in understanding the scope of Ariel Pink’s career, but it’s also the hardest thing to keep track of. When it arrived 10 years ago today, he called Before Today a debut album, which was accurate in regards to the band he’d formed in the last few years, but “Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti” had existed for much longer. Ariel Rosenberg started writing music in 1996, which, for perspective, was the year Michael Jackson divorced Lisa Marie Presley, the Spice Girls launched their debut single “Wannabe,” and Beck released Odelay. The first album credited to Haunted Graffiti, The Doldrums, appeared in 2000 — the same year as Modest Mouse’ The Moon & Antarctica, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists, and Radiohead’s Kid A.

These are concrete dates that nonetheless feel impossible to square in my mind as coming from the same period, but the blown-out boombox ballads of The Doldrums — a record that manages to be cartoonishly cheery and soul-crushingly bleak — offer a deconstruction of traditional rock music as alien and original as any of those albums. Even then, it wouldn’t find an audience until 2004, when it was released on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks.

It’s hard to remember how much of a critical punchline Pink was at first, how genuinely baffled and frustrated some people were by this music. In a Pitchfork review, Nick Sylvester called The Doldrums “not a collection of songs so much as an excessive human spectacle — violently personal and necessarily confrontational” and said he was unable to decide if Pink was “a genius, an idiot, an idiot savant, or some combination of the three.” With a pan like that, who needs a good review?

I’m sure many people were drawn to The Doldrums, House Arrest, and Worn Copy by reactions like this. Some certainly saw a joke, but I don’t think anyone could account for how inspiring his determination was. People tend to recite that Velvet Underground legend when talking about Pink, but the better comparison is Lil B. “Will I write a song you love today?” Pink sings in the opening line of House Arrest’s “Interesting Results.” “There’s no way to tell — and who cares! — well I don’t/ THANK THE LORD/ That my standards of success are so low.”

That might not seem inspiring, but as a whipcrack signals the chorus, Pink offers something that is: “Every time I pick up the pen/ I get interesting results/ Every time I sit down and I try/ I get these extraterrestrial results.” The song hilariously keeps lowering the listener’s expectations while simultaneously blowing them away, and its last line — “It may not be much, but let’s see you try” — was an invitation many accepted. When asked in a 2011 interview who his biggest influence was, Girls frontman Christopher Owens said Ariel Pink without a second thought: “Not for any way of how I write or how our band plays. He just literally gave me the desire to do what I’m doing now.”

In the lead-up to Before Today, all the stars aligned around Pink’s amorphous sound. The August 2009 issue of experimental music staple The Wire called Pink’s output “hypnagogic pop,” linking him with folks like James Ferraro and Rangers, while bedroom “chillwave” artists Neon Indian and Washed Out enjoyed a brief period of popular attention. (Remember how much the theme song to Portlandia meant to people?) Pink, meanwhile, was busy turning Haunted Graffiti into an actual group, including Tim Koh, Cole MGN, and Kenny “Keys” Gilmore, gradually expanding these hazy lo-fi recordings to the sound he heard in his head.

It’s a scenario that feels so similar to Captain Beefheart, particularly in a quote from Koh, who had known Pink since 1996 and had previously worked with Gang Gang Dance and harsh noise artist John Wiese. “It’s the most difficult music I’ve ever tried to play,” he told Pitchfork in 2011. “Even something that sounds simple, like ‘For Kate I Wait,’ took me months. I still don’t have it exactly.” Imagine if instead of being one of the great cult artifacts of the ’60s, mined by future generations, Beefheart immediately inspired a group of like-minded artists and then released Trout Mask Replica to enormous success. This is the trajectory Pink mapped out with Before Today. Most of the songs on the album are revamped versions of that tangled, lesser-known back catalog, patchworked during reportedly chaotic sessions that saw band members quit and rejoin. Yet it all works beautifully, as both a tour through Pink’s mind and as a garish portrait of Hollywood, one as vivid and sincere as Ray Davies’ depictions of England on the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society.

“Hot Body Rub,” a collaboration with experimental jazz ensemble Vas Deferens Organization that appeared on an obscure EP, kickstarts the album with a chorus of honking horns, swerving cars, and whirring helicopters. It hums like a carnival ride warming up. “Little Wig” and “L’Estat” are both elevated from their hazy origins on DUH — a release obscure to even most fans — to multi-sectioned epics. Even the new songs like “Menopause Man” and “Fright Night” feel this way, like there’s some older demo we just haven’t discovered yet. The latter acts as a time capsule for the ’80s slasher film era where each sequel got a band to write the theme song. (Pink references one of the best of these, the Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready For Freddy” from Nightmare On Elm Street IV: The Dream Master.)

Even the most overlooked track, the brief instrumental “Reminiscences” from the EP of the same name, sounds like it could have been a blueprint for every chillwave song ever written. It’s actually a complicated cover of an Ethiopian jazz standard, though you can imagine most chillwave artists would have just sampled the original and called it a day. You can actually recreate Before Today from those sketches or mix them up and it still all locks together perfectly, bringing a sense of stakes that separate it from anything else in Pink’s career before or since. It’s the eye of the storm, a moment he seemed to be chasing for the first 10 years and has spent the last 10 moving away from.

Pink’s music has been so tied to his personality since day one, but 10 years later when I hear Before Today I don’t think about him. I think about all those other bands. I think about people arguing over “the validity of chillwave” or “the theory behind hypnagogic pop” and how meaningless it feels. I think about Sleigh Bells or Washed Out or Girls (and how exciting it was to see this site give them Album Of The Year), and I wonder who remembers them now and who will in another 10 years and what Christopher Owens is doing with his life these days. I think about Jay Reatard dying the year this came out, after touring with the Pixies, and how these tragedies turn into footnotes.

I think about all the bands that meant something to me and others, but sometimes I just feel an echo of something that used to, and I can’t remember the band name or the hook anymore. I think about the bands I’m slowly forgetting every day, the people who were forgotten or never discovered or had a moment of success. Pop music is the music of the moment; it lets us appreciate the present in a way that’s so difficult to process. And as time progresses, it flattens out and gets compacted. It’s a memory.

This is maybe the most painful thing about being a music journalist. People treat us as tastemakers, like we have control, but most of what we can do is just bear witness to an industry designed to use people up as efficiently as possible. There’s an excitement in helping a band get a break that I’d never give up, but I can’t be the only one who feels that guilt and grief as you watch a band’s 15 minutes of fame dry up or realize that they peaked creatively two albums ago. Before Today is Ariel Pink’s 15 minutes of fame, and when I hear it 10 years later, I’m shocked and devastated and deeply moved by how aware of that fact he sounds, how he seems to be the only one aware of that. There’s always a struggle between cynicism and sincerity in Pink’s work, and you see it in interviews and performances, but you won’t find it on Before Today. There’s a joy and peace here that only shines brighter now.

“It’s easy to be weird. You just have to not be whatever’s happening in any given 15 minutes,” Pink said when we interviewed him in 2017. “It’s easy for me to be weird; what’s weird to me is there was 15 minutes when I wasn’t weird. I just happened to be passing through when the microscope happened to notice me.”

Which finally brings us to “Round And Round,” a song that opens its arms to all the wonder and tragedy of pop music itself. It’s a song so profoundly aware of its own disposability, its temporary moment, that it now sounds utterly zen. “I’m afraid, you’re afraid/ And we die and we live and we’re born again/ Turn me inside out,” Pink invites. It’s a song that connected with countless people across the planet and became one of the defining songs of a generation, the peak of “retromania” that felt like a win for every forgotten musician who almost made it big.

That perfect chorus repeats forever in the second half but always seems to end too soon. Originally, it was a fragment called “Frontman” on Rarities (Just For You!) which, true to the name, was a CD-R Pink sent to a single fan on MySpace. Imagine what that person thought when they heard “Round And Round” — or when Pitchfork, the same outlet that once confusedly shrugged at Pink, named it the best song of 2010. Ten years later the song stands as an elegy for itself, for a moment I don’t think any of us realized was so fleeting.

I wonder what people will make of Ariel Pink in another 10 or 20 or 50 years. If it weren’t for this lightning-strike album, maybe his recordings would have fallen into obscurity by now. Maybe he would have disappeared by now like Bobby Jameson or Syd Barrett or Alex Chilton or the names we’ve already forgotten. Maybe that will all still happen, some time after we’re gone and “rock music” flattens out to a smaller chapter in a bigger chunk of history, the way some think of Romantic or Baroque and others just lump it all in with Classical. Maybe someone will rediscover him and write a pop song about it. You already know the song — it’s the kind that makes you say, “I like that!” Can you hear it? Whenever and wherever you are, it’ll sound like everything forgotten and remembered before today. It’ll sound like Ariel Pink.