Ariel Pink is the Maestro of 21st Century Music’s Retro Sound

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Ten years ago. Before Today. A change: Ariel Pink signed to 4AD and, after spending nearly a decade indoors, he’d gotten out of the proverbial house. (He had to! He was in demand!) Ariel got a smartphone. His posture has never been exemplary. He’s always had a hunch. Very often he resembles a researcher over a microscope in the laboratory. There he is: over the tape machine, over the foil, over his bass playing, over his illustrations, over his lists (endless lists!). These days if he’s awake he is hunched over his phone. He is getting it done.

O Victoriana, you must have seen it all. By your day, mystery itself was all but tamed; whatever wasn’t was given a name, for everything is named, even the dead. Under Victoria’s flicker the earth in every direction had been illumined by torch, fire, bulb, or reason of the heavens. Enigma herself was given a gender and plotted. Even idyll was finally understood to be its own reward, but only by those who had known or outsmarted employment, the means by which leisure itself was measured, calorie and ounce, meter and minute, pound and purity of birthright.

This morning, cursed with his good looks and memorized charm, Ariel ventures past the concierge of the old hotel in Fitzrovia, pausing at the brightness of the doorman’s white grin as the doorman saves Ariel from having to touch the door himself. Today is to be his last day in London. I wonder what rules he will bend to suit his private whims. What mischief, what libertine scenarios will Ariel get himself into this afternoon? How will he manage to carve a night out of the day?

Well, the bathing pools in Hampstead Heath were dug as a jobs program, a matter of fact which should delight the imagination and, I expect, remain delightful as long as the tern whistles. Freedom, fully furnished and savored—well, one must make wage-earners of the unemployed masses. Something at last to do, a living, that’s right people, jobs, dig it, jobs! Now, the great ditches were lined with iron-y clay from elsewhere in the heath. Of the known animals in the realm, very few had eluded man’s ingenuity for use and but for a handful, most of the bigger beasts had by now bowed to man’s incredible mastery.

For all the ink that has been spilled about Ariel Pink’s “retro” ways—his music is invariably described as a churning up of the best bits of radio hits of bygone decades; in this the only variation seems to be whether it’s ’70s AM radio or ’80s FM radio he’s mining—I, for one, find it funny that as an artist he’s also universally regarded as vanguard, articulating the zeitgeist since he left the gate nearly 20 years ago.

Did you know Ariel Pink has beautiful penmanship? It’s a lowercase print that’s always rendered with a very fine tip. It’s not cursive but it does have a curl to it. Proper script, a vampire’s hand.

A beast who trod the land was surer and sooner to see yolk than those giants who swam still-soundless depths. And the bigger beasts that had learned to bow in deference if not to amber then inevitably to the plow, these were the beasts who matted the floors of the pits just dug by menfolk. Their hooves carried tonnage, tonnage now pressing the clay wastelessly into the sandy earth by pacing and pacing back, heads hung low in low thought, heads masticating or drooling on the metal for miles, days enough to be counted as years, bobbing so near the hoof its nostrils know only its own shit for sure, as if in a circle but the ponds are anything but circles in shape, until the word tread is heeled into word, as deed is done into fact.

Ten years ago, while the body of Yves Saint Laurent was still warm, Hedi Slimane was looking at the career that lay before him, and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. In 2009, he was still photographing ad campaigns for Prada, going to Coachella with his camera. 2011, he released Hedi Slimane: Anthology of a Decade, about which he said to The Guardian, “Maybe I have to start designing again.” By all accounts he was reeling in his experiences in the music world. He may have been planning his return to the forefront of fashion but he wasn’t talking about it. Suddenly the house of Yves Saint Laurent was his. We watched. His first ad for Saint Laurent Paris had no clothes in it, just mood. The emperor was without a stitch to wear. The model? Christopher Owens, wearing only his tattoos, reposed on an opiated pillow. The kicker is that Christopher Owens is not a model, he is a rock musician. And Christopher will gladly tell you that were it not for Ariel Pink he never would have started his first band, Girls. But he did, and in doing so he embarked on his own serpentine path to becoming the new face of fashion. When at last the clothes came, there was Ariel in the leather jacket. He was in company with Kim Gordon, Marilyn Manson, Courtney Love, Beck, Amy Winehouse, even John Lydon. Ariel had joined the ranks. The kid was now canon.

Knowing what we know now, I bet it isn’t difficult to imagine that if you were somehow able to go back nine years and travel to the summer of 2010—to the very moment 4AD was poised to release Before Today—and while there, managed to put a cork in the story of Ariel Pink, to cancel his career there and then, and safely scurry back to now (the actual now—the one you put up with), you’d return to a present that would be very, very different from the one we have. Across the landscape, music would sound different. Less freewheeling, less hand-hewn, less deep. The rules of performance and pageantry wouldn’t be the same. On Twitter, where you routinely share your thinking about sound recordings, your tweet about fidelity in general might still be mired in “hi v. lo” rhetoric. Home recording is absolutely without stigma. It’s nothing to be ashamed of if you’re on your second album and have still never seen the inside of what they used to call a “proper studio.” It’s not inconceivable that Ariel’s “give-it-a-go” ethic had something to do with the fact that by 2013 your new Apple iOS came with GarageBand already installed. In piecemeal, indelible ways, Ariel Pink has changed the game. We wouldn’t be the same without him.

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