Friday, June 30, 2023

A Fan's Dilemma (3 of 3)


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Worn Copy

A counter-current to the digitalization of everyday life, analogue fetishism became one of the defining developments of the 2000s. Entire micro-genres sprang up oriented around cassette releases with handcrafted packaging, there was a burgeoning antique market for modular synths, and a resurgence of vinyl took off that would lead to overpriced platters popping up in Whole Foods next to the artisanal soaps and organic almond butter.

Arriving smack in the middle of the decade,  Worn Copy chimed with the emerging hip taste for the distressed and faded  - even when those effects, as with Hipstamatic, were actually digital simulations of decay and ageing.

The title Worn Copy had a particular reference, drawing attention to Ariel’s means-of-production: the 8-track Yamaha MT8X cassette-recorder. Where most of his DIY contemporaries used digital technology to record and then released the results on “dead media” formats like vinyl or cassette, Ariel’s process was analogue from the ground up.  The Yamaha MT8X is a long discontinued piece of equipment that – like the similar Tascam Portastudio – only existed for a few years before digital technology made it obsolete. Rather than the 2-inch or 3-inch reel-to-reel tape used in professional recording studios, these home studios recorded directly onto cassettes, where the tape was slightly wider than an eighth of an inch. Your master tape was a C60, C90, even a C120 if you were really cheapskate – something you could buy at Sam Goody or Radio Shack.

These were machines designed for amateur musicians looking to teach themselves the rudiments of mixing and overdubbing, or for songwriters and fledgling bands to record demos.  “The function, and appeal, of the Yamaha and Tascam, was that you had the studio and the mixing desk in one,” explains Ariel. “You didn’t need to have a reel-to-reel unit and a separate mixing board, and then another medium to dub copies down to from the master tape. You could monitor and record on a single machine.”  Very convenient, but the downside was a brutally reduced level of sound quality. The eight channels of sound on the mixer got distributed as eight bands across tape far thinner than the tape used in a recording studio. “Each band can’t process as much information, can’t take as much signal, without bleeding onto the other tracks”.

Ariel gives me a glimpse of his archive of master tapes. Rather than the film canister-like containers that word usually suggests, these are scores – maybe hundreds – of decidedly cheapo-looking cassettes. Most appear to be normal-bias (i.e. not the superior-grade chrome or metal tapes that hi-fi listeners preferred). A few even look like pre-recorded cassettes that he taped over. “I wanted to get the most bang for my buck,” Ariel laughs.  You could improve the sound somewhat by recording at double-speed… but the end result didn’t exactly sound like it hailed from the Record Plant.

The paradox of Worn Copy and the other Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums of this era is that Ariel was using a preliminary process to make a finished product, and further, that he was attempting to make music with the layered arrangements and intricate production of, say, Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac, using technology even more basic than what was available to DIY pioneers like Swell Maps and Television Personalities (who at least got to see the inside of a professional recording studio).

This gulf between ambition and means is heard most gloriously on Worn Copy’s opener, “Trepanated Earth”, an 11-minute, multi-segmented epic that swerves through style switches and crescendo upon crescendo, resurrecting the bygone drama of a lost golden age of radio rock.  “ I feel like it’s being transmitted from my ears, being broadcast from 1979,” says Ariel. “Pomp and massiveness” was what he was aiming for, he says. That and a feeling of unhinged, off-the-rails momentum: “the nuance and the chemistry of a real band playing – a band at their prime or at their most unleashed, when they had all their energy stirred up and didn’t know what to do with it. In that song, I just wanted to do everything at once – a real showcase of what I can do.”

“Like all the stuff in a way, ‘Trepanated Earth’ is intended to catch someone off guard while they’re listening in a record store,” Ariel continues. He puts on a nerdy-dude voice to impersonate the startled customer: “’ Wooah, what is this, man! I’ve never heard this stuff before! What year is it’s from?’” He deadpans the clerk’s voice - “It’s from this year” – and then switches back to the customer’s stunned “What?!?” 

A former record store clerk himself, Ariel effortlessly breaks down the component stages of “Trepanated Earth”,  connecting each section in turn to the theme song of the TV sitcom ‘Full House,’ to the glassy guitar-chimes of English DIY cult figure Martin Newell of The Cleaners from Venus, to Can’s slippery bass-motion, to the raging guitar-thrash of Simply Saucer. But the whole transcends its parts, and the raging conglomerate is truly transcendent – possibly the most ecstatic rock blow-out of the 21st Century so far. 

But what about that strange title?

“I looked it up in the dictionary but there’s no such word – there’s ‘trepanned’ but not ‘trepanated.. I just liked the way it rolled off the tongue.” Non-existent word or not, the title communicates a potent image: just like primitive peoples boring holes in the skulls of persons we’d  nowadays recognize as mentally ill, in order to release evil spirits,  you picture our planet being perforated and unloosing black flaming clouds of psychotic energy. It’s easy to imagine “Trepanated Earth” as an album cover – “a psychedelic explosion” as Ariel puts it.  

The song starts with Ariel’s guttural growls of misanthropy – “the human race is a pile of dogshit”, “mankind is a Nazi”, “humanity is the devil”, “do you really think I give a fuck about the world?” – offset by a boyish, innocent alter-ego Ariel speaking about dream worlds and the power of the imagination.  This is a devil versus angel shoulder scenario, Ariel explains. “They’re having a little dance, the two voices, the two viewpoints.” Then “Trepanated” shifts into a love-hate song. “It’s a schism between a couple – I’m just pleading, telling them I hate their guts while I love their ass. It’s a kiss-off that’s also like a love poem”.

“Immune To Emotion,” the next track on Worn Copy, is the calm after the storm of “Trepanated”. But the serenity is only surface-deep, a mask of impregnability. “That phrase just rolled off my tongue really easily – it’s what I would have liked to have seemed to everybody. I’m completely just bluffing. It’s a pose - ‘nothing’s going to ruffle this guy’ -  but of course inside I’m a screaming manlet who needs attention.”

“Life In LA” drops the bad-ass façade with the candid confession that “life can be so lonely”. The melancholy mood is softened by a daffy quacking refrain that recurs (Ariel vocally squawking melodic lines for his clarinetist friend to follow and double) and by a syrupy golden sound that oozes gorgeously over the entire song. “The wah pedal is introduced on Worn Copy – that’s the effect du jour on all the songs. It gives ‘Life in LA’  that sort of fake-funky feeling. An easy-listening, AM Gold vibe, like ‘Girlfriend;, that Paul McCartney song that Michael Jackson sang. I picture palm trees, light reflecting off of sun-blockers.” The mise en scene seems similar to Ariel’s later cover of the Sixties pop-psych song “Bright Lit Blue Skies” – where the summer sunshine feels like a lie to those exiled from happiness, who carry a cache of wintry coldness inside them all year round.

There are lighter moments scattered all across Worn Copy. Whimsies like “Jules Lost His Jewels”, the true story of Ariel’s cat getting neutered because he sprayed over his girlfriend’s leg. The jaunty “Artifact” -  a sort of sci-fi fable or message to his future-self sent via song, laced with water-bong sounds.  Bouncy comic cuts like “Credit,” with its hilarious lyrics about how the game is rigged against consumers, and “The Drummer”,  a third-person veiled-autobiography about “an anti-hero starting his own band,” who gets the chicks dancing to beats played “with his tongue and his teeth”.  “One On One” shimmers gorgeously like Can in Afro-mode, the dreaminess offset by a lyric about an orgy: “Take your neighbor’s hand / And throw them on the ground… Don’t fret if you’re going to come / When you’re finished, get another one.”  Starting with a sample from obscure German psych-prog outfit Missus Beastly, “Somewhere In Europe” is a spoof on Americans abroad that Ariel compares to Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation

There are also pure moments of aching near-abstract beauty – the ambient caverns of “Foilly Foibles / GOLD”, a reverberant chamber redolent of Miles Davis’s “He Loved Him Madly”, although Ariel’s own comparisons are Saucerful of Secrets and Cluster. Or “Jagged Carnival Tours”, which Ariel describes as “like some futuristic tunnel at Universal Studios in the Eighties”. This noodling amorphousness is something that Ariel used to jam out by the yard, or C120, reflecting his love of Sun Ra and ultra-obscure, beyond-the-Nurse-With-Wound-List experimental oddballs.

Still, the heart of the album, as with all of Ariel’s work, is the clash of opposed impulses: pop’s pleasing prettiness and shapely structures, stained and shook by the sort of wounded / wounding emotions that  normally funnel themselves into genres like death-metal, industrial and Goth.   

The literary critic Randall Jarrell believed that you could take any poet or writer’s work and boil it down to a handful of keywords that crystalize the kernel, the creative matrix, of their vision.  In Ariel’s case, way out in front, the hands-down winner, would be “perverted”. That word and variants like “pervert” and “perversion” crop up repeatedly in his conversation, serve as the go-to adjective to describe his approach to processing sound, warping influences, and writing lyrics, as well as his taste and his worldview.

“I think I’m a little bit perverted in my reasoning,” Ariel muses. “I flip things on their head and re-encrust the diamond with coal, if you get me. I pervert the meanings of things, I pervert the sacred. I profane things – but in a really G-rated way. I’m not the Marquis de Sade, I’m not even Genesis P-Orridge. But I’ve always been kind of morbid.  That’s why I love rock’n’roll -- it’s bad. When things are bad aesthetically as well as morally -- there lies my interest.”

Things starting going awry when Ariel was only two and his parents got divorced. He went through therapy as a kid. After a period at a Jewish private school, he attended a public junior high in Beverley Hills. The transition was difficult. “Being very small, I was made fun of a lot.” So Ariel got into death metal as a kind of retaliatory counter-strike.  “There’s no question I was trying to over-compensate for the fact that I was a little pipsqueak and completely harmless, by listening to really aggressive music. Embracing something to intimidate people.  I decided I had to get my revenge. I was like a Columbine kid, except this is before Columbine. But there was that total pathos thing of using the craziest music to express my extreme antipathy to normies. I wore Goreguts T shirts and I was like ‘why don’t people want to talk me?’!”

Things improved after a sojourn at an American private school in Mexico – the death-metal CDs were traded in for the less overtly offensive miserabilism of The Cure and The Smiths.  Still, a taste for the dark and perverted  manifested still through his high school artwork, which had a “a grotesque quality - corpses, sculptures I made of human flesh. Deep-gutted and disemboweled. All these terrible sadistic things happening to them, charged with erotic or religious imagery.”

 “Craft” is another Jarrell-style keyword that flickers through Ariel’s conversation, with a palpable pride in what he achieved on the most basic set-up. Listening, you can sense an innocent Lego-like delight in song building, the deftness with which he strings together intros, builds, middle-eights,  transitions, codas, into surprising but logical pop constructions.

Craftmanship is something that Ariel was praised for from a very early age, albeit in the visual rather than sonic arts: the first time he can remember receiving encouragement and attention. “From the age of three, I was an extremely skilled craftsman,” he told me in 2010. “I was always raised to think I was supposed to be an artist” – here he put on a squeaky old parent’s voice - “’Oh my god, look at him, he’s like a Picasso’. They thought I was going to go into graphic design.” But when he got to art school, he found that his particular talent for illustration was out of synch with prevailing conceptual approaches. That’s when the songwriting impulses of his pre-teen years resurged, resulting in his presentation of CD-Rs sold from a kiosk as his artistic contribution to the end-of-year thesis show at Cal Arts.  

In his songs,  two stages of Ariel’s development -  the child’s awakening to the rapture of pure pop beauty, the adolescent’s angst and bratty nihilism - mesh into art-pop that’s simultaneously classicist and expressionist.  The violence of emotion is what gives Ariel’s work its charge, flooding the formalist pop structures with raw feeling -  like the virulent hues of graffiti sprayed against the side of a building.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

A Fan's Dilemma (2 of 3)


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

House Arrest

The title “House Arrest” sounds like an allusion to Ariel’s reclusive, home-bound lifestyle circa its 2002 recording. His world revolved around a one-room apartment above an ashram in Crenshaw, South Central LA. The living space was spartan: “I had my bed on the ground, I didn’t have any furniture – just my little Sanyo stereo, two speakers and the 8-track recorder right in front of it. There was a table in the corner and a bunch of garbage bags full of my clothes.” He had to share a bathroom with several other people who lived on the upstairs floor above the ashram. 

Ariel fell into a routine. By day, he worked as an art teacher’s assistant at an elementary school (the same one he’d attended as a kid, in fact). Come four in the afternoon, he’d head home. Contravening the ashram rules he’d signed as a condition of living there  - which among other things strictly forbad strong flavors like garlic and smoking -  Ariel ordered kung po chicken delivery every night and got stoned. Then he slipped on headphones and started recording.  He made music all evening and deep into the night.

Ariel lived there for two years and only left because he got mugged twice right outside the house. “I would've stayed there for longer – that was by far my most productive period. I recorded five albums while I was there. I was working all night, so I don’t even know when I slept. Maybe I slept every other day, I can’t remember. Certainly I was burning the candles at both ends.”

The best part of the day was when the sun came up and Ariel was finally able to take off the headphones and play what he’d recorded through proper speakers. “Getting really stoned and listening to it - trying to pretend like I’d never heard it before.”

Ariel would come up with track sequencings for albums, make CD covers using color-marked Polaroids, get them miniaturized and printed at Kinko’s. But he was still a long way from having an audience.  “I had two or three friends in my life, barely, and even fewer than that knew me as a musician. There was just John Maus. My wife didn’t think of me that way. And I wasn’t playing live to turn people on.” 

His appearance wasn’t super-inviting either in those days:  red clogs with eyeballs painted on them, grey sweats (“the slumlord look”, he calls it), no shirt but just a hoodie zipped down. “A Nazi space monk, a German hippie with a very sick, death obsession,” is how Ariel describes his image, adding – not wholly convincingly - “there’s definitely lots of people that felt that style.”

Asked whether he was making the music just for himself at this point, Ariel nods and says “and just for a sense of purpose in life. I was really infused with the Lord, so to speak.”

The man’s religious love and awe for pop announces itself with the opening track on House Arrest, the rhapsodically melodic “Hardcore Pops Are Fun.”   Somewhere between a hymn and a mission-statement, its lyrics are deceptively off-the-cuff, but lay out the Ariel Pink credo in clearly devotional terms:  “Pop music is free/For you and me….  Pop music is wine, it tastes so divine”. The “hardcore” in the title “Hardcore Pops Are Fun” is Ariel’s playful way of asserting the deadly seriousness of his dedication to pop as craft and vocation: his belief that prettiness and sweetness can be as intense and powerful  as supposedly more challenging and rule-breaking forms of music like noise, industrial, extreme metal. “Whatever I was doing I thought was really heavy, but in a different sense.”  There’s an echo of Lou Reed on “Heroin” in the line “Pop music’s your wife/Have it for life”: pop as addiction, as God-surrogate, as an absolute commitment.

“Interesting Results”, the track that immediately follows, is  “another total manifesto song”, Ariel says.  You could slot it into the tradition of self-reflexive showbiz songs – ABBA’s “Thank You For the Music”, Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs” – except that it’s far more interesting, taking you inside Ariel’s process. The song freeze-frames the moment just before taking the plunge into creation, hesitant and crinkled with doubt.  “Will I write /A song you love / Today?/There’s no way to tell/And who cares/Well I don’t,” Ariel teases the listener, adding in mock self-deprecation “Thank the Lord that my standards for success are so low”. The chorus swings the other way into ebullient confidence: “Every time / I pick up a pen/ I get / Interesting results/Every time / I sit down and try/I get /Extra-terrestrial results”. The kicker at the end turns it around on Ariel’s – then non-existent – audience: “It may not be much, but let’s see you try.”  Ariel laughs in recollection: “That was me really trying to milk the meta-narrative, for lack of anything to actually write about!”

“Getting High In the Morning”, another stand-out track on House Arrest, could also be construed – at a pinch – as a working-methods-revealed song.  It sounds frazzled, the corrugated riffs and effects-soaked textures resembling a malfunctioning TV set whose color balance is grotesquely out of whack. Ariel compares it to Zappa at his most zany and to ‘International Feel’ on Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, A True Star.  

That late Sixties acid rock vibe resurfaces on “Netherlands.” Here the brittle, painfully bright guitar recalls Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing At Baxter’s - Ariel’s piercing, high-pitched, edging-into-too-sharp vocal even sounds like Grace Slick. There’s that same sense of perceptions stripped raw, of visionary overload straining the nervous system to breaking point. “It’s got that Moby Grape on a bender vibe,” nods Ariel. “That totally fried thing. The fuzz bass.”

Ariel is a deep scholar of Sixties psychedelia, although his tastes lean less to the Nuggets-y raw ‘n’ basic garage punk end of things and more to the pop-psych: the Byrds, the first Love LP, Electric Prunes, even Strawberry Alarm Clock. “I just love the Sixties”. He likes to say that he “brought the Eighties to the Sixties” – a joke, but one that does convey, if somewhat inscrutably, the sense that something else is going on here than the usual kind of revivalist procedure: something more uncanny. Obsolete technology (the long-discontinued Yamaha 8-track), dead musical languages, disinterred memories, and a lifetime of poring over recordings and assimilating the sonic signatures of their specific Zeitgeists - all converge to conjure songs that suggest parallel pop realities or counterfactual histories, how things could have gone down if…  

Temporal sequence gets scrambled, history goes haywire.  “The People I’m Not”, for instance, is described by Ariel as “a demo from Rocket From the Tombs, but playing a Fleetwood Mac song – there’s some Tango In the Night, ‘tell me sweet little lies’ vibe in there” – in other words, a song from a decade-or-more after the Cleveland proto-punk group ceased to exist.

But it’s always personal with Ariel, never merely “record collection rock”:  clever-but-empty games with taste and references,  sterile crafting of period-precise fakesimiles.  He jokes that his version of psych-rock is really “psychotherapy rock…. I’m always going  back to those earliest memories”. Indeed there’s an unreleased song from the House Arrest / Worn Copy /Doldrums era in which the 8-track is actually his shrink. The machine listens patiently to Ariel unburdening himself, and then in a pitched-down, masculine-medical voice offers soothing advice and support.

Of his lyrics, Ariel says “I have to trick myself… pretend everything’s like a scratch track, write the words down quickly…. And then later, I’m like ‘Nope, Ariel, the lyrics are done’.” Each lyric, he says, “is like a little piece of me preserved against my will” – and the totality of them add up to a warts-and-all psychological self-portrait. “There’s an ongoing narrative under all this stuff. And it’s really like some weird transference therapy thing”. Through his music, Ariel has found the missing link between The Cure and the talking cure. 

Saturday, June 24, 2023

A Fan's Dilemma (1 of 3)


Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

The Doldrums

The first time Ariel’s music got any real form of public reception was in 2004 when The Doldrums was released via Animal Collective’s label Paw Tracks. But back when he originally recorded the bulk of the album – fall 1999 through spring 2000 – it was a solipsistic endeavor: music made without much prospect of ears other than its creator’s hearing it.

Ariel did run off some CD-R copies, though, and “sneaked them into record stores, slipping them into the ‘A’ section. I felt like the Lucky Charms leprechaun, running around dropping gifts and not expecting anything to come from it.” According to Discogs, this earliest incarnation of The Doldrums also existed as a tour giveaway, although it’s unclear what kind of tours Ariel was mounting at this embryonic stage of his career.

When The Doldrums got that wider release (or rerelease, if you want to be a stickler) through Paw Tracks, there was a striking unanimity to the critical response: review after review involved variations on the idea of Ariel’s songs coming through a tinny transistor or malfunctioning radio - out of focus, distorted, sporadically disrupted by interference from another station’s signal.   The analogy was so widespread you could be forgiven for assuming that this effect was the artist’s intent. In fact it was an accidental byproduct of Ariel’s rudimentary means of production, a home-studio cassette-recorder that tended to produce bleed-through between its 8 tracks,  while also chopping off the frequencies at the top and bottom ends of the sound-spectrum. “You take off the top and you take off the bottom, and that’s what you get – a compressed signal like an AM radio,” Ariel told me when I first interviewed him in 2005.

Another common critical response to The Doldrums was nearer the truth:  the idea that the record recreated a primal pop scene, the child’s first encounters with the wondrous sounds streaming out of the radio (or in Ariel’s case, the television – the dawn of his pop awareness coincided with the earliest days of MTV). A few years after these baptismal raptures, still a child, Ariel started writing his first pop tunes -  scribbling down fully-formed songs in a big notebook from the age of ten.  “I lost the book but I still remember lots of the songs, because I remember the lyrics,” he says, explaining that the words trigger deep-embedded memories of “the exact structure of the orchestration.” He adds, “They were all in the mold of the music of the time – there was a Billy Idol one, a Foreigner one! Fully contemporary music, unlike what I would do later.” One of these precocious compositions did actually make it to the recording studio over two decades later -  “Can’t Hear My Eyes,”  which appeared on 2010’s Before Today. The original, though, sounded more like a hard rock ballad - something by Whitesnake or Great Lion – than the Fleetwood Mac / Gerry Rafferty AOR beauty it became.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti was an actual group by 2010. Originally, the band-sound was an illusion artfully concocted by a multi-instrumentalist using multi-tracking, in the tradition of  Todd Rundgren, or Ariel’s own hero R. Stevie Moore.  Ariel became a virtuoso of editing, using his toe to pause and rewind, and “building up impressive musical lines in tiny increments”.  The bedrock of his sound, and the “full band” illusion, was a trompe l’oreille trick in its own right: Ariel’s famous “mouth drums”. Always laid down first as the foundation of every track, these astonishingly realistic and convincing drum patterns were created by Ariel’s subdividing his palate into a virtual kit, with different parts corresponding to the kick and snare and toms and hi-hat, and using his tongue as the drum stick. “I’m probably flexing muscles I was never meant  to use,” he quipped when explaining this unique self-invented technique in 2005.

In the beginning, he didn’t imagine “Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti” as a band name along the lines of, say,  Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. “Ariel Pink wasn’t me, it was meant to be this producer impresario. Like some perverted homeless bum presenting you with The Streets of LA: ‘Welcome to the best graffiti you’ll ever see’.” The “haunted” part of the name happened to chime, though, with the 2000s vogue for hauntology and a spate of artists or labels with the word “ghost” in their name. Ariel had something else in mind: “graffiti gets painted over, but it’s not gone, it’s still there – you just can’t see it. Like a church being planted on top of the Indian burial ground.”

Still, there is something ghostly about the wavery indistinctness of Ariel’s sound on The Doldrums and Worn Copy, a quality that did seem to make him a fellow-traveler with the hauntologists of the mid-2000s. The songs felt like portals through time, revenant reveries of a long-lost radio-rock utopia, a spectral spectrum of slickly produced sounds ranging from late Seventies faves like Blue Öyster Cult and ELO to Eighties rock ‘n ‘soul hitmakers like Hall & Oates. 

“I felt like I was doing something brand-new with Doldrums that I’d never done before,” says Ariel now, talking about how he left behind the familiar terrain of lo-fi indiepop for “this other kind of music I liked, which nobody else liked – this lugubrious,  middle-of-the-road sound of the Eighties.  It’s not about bands, it’s about songs – and an artist might make one song in that vein per album. If they make three, then it’s already my favorite album.” The early Cure are at the heart of the style, but there’s also Kate Bush, and The Psychedelic Furs...  and a lot of far more uncool (at least in those days) artists that are “totally obsolete and forgotten”. 

A record store clerk for much of the period before he became a public figure, Ariel is a scholar of obscure artists with a specialized knowledge and taste for the sold-out and the compromised,  for opportunistic hacks jumping on the latest trends, for once-major artists rudderless and on the downward slope. But he’s never done research as prequel to or component of the creative process; he doesn’t map out a mood-board of influences and references for songs or albums. Any resemblances and warped echoes that listeners identify – or that he, inveterate record-geek, later offers up in interviews - emerge organically from his pop unconscious, a region of mushed-together memories,  the residues and traces from a childhood where “MTV was my babysitter”.  

Half in jest, half in earnest accuracy, Ariel has described his music as “retrolicious” in the past. “I see it as preserving something that has died,” he told me in 2010. “Something that's going extinct. And just saying, 'no!'. I like to make things that I like.  And what I like is something that I don't hear.” Today he describes his relationship to the music past in terms of ancestor worship, with a hint of those tribes who honor the dead by consuming them: “I just love my music gods – I’m just eating it all up.” But for all the “style surfing” and the mask-like adoption of vocal personae (like the British-accented Eighties synth-pop voice he sometimes uses), there is an expressive urgency and ecstatic emotionalism that bursts through the surface pastiche.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Doldrums’s three-song sequence “Strange Fires”, “Among Dreams” and “For Kate I Wait”. Perhaps the greatest three-in-a-row of the 21st Century, these pearly beauties tingle and tremble with longing and loneliness. “Strange Fires” has something of the ethereal translucence and jejeune misterioso vibe of The Cure’s “A Forest” – “the bad poetry of a junior high school kid”, as Ariel puts it. Kate Bush, that other formative influence, is all over “Among Dreams”, with its high wuthering vocal. And “For Kate I Wait” is literally a tribute to Bush. I’ve always heard it as the voice of an obsessed fan waiting for Kate’s new single to come on the radio, back in the days when you couldn’t dial up your desires instantly but were at the mercy of playlist programmers. It’s actually more oblique than that, says Ariel: “A creep song. All of my songs are from the point of view of the stalker”. He regards “For Kate I Wait” as  “a personal milestone, a big accomplishment in the way I crafted it. It’s got this really inscrutable heart that’s hard to replicate with a band live.”  It’s his favorite tune on the album.

Many fans would nod in agreement…  then pause, ponder, and suggest that “The Ballad of Bobby Pyn”  just might surpass it.  Unlike the rest of The Doldrums, which was recorded at the turn of the millennium, “Bobby Pyn” was recorded three years later, in 2003, when Ariel’s life was collapsing. “I was going through a break-up with my wife, and I recorded it in my closet, because I had to get out of the living room – she was taking over everything.” Perhaps the claustrophobia of this sanctuary / impromptu studio – a three foot by five space, crammed with clothes hung on a rack and piled in hampers – is what impelled Ariel to build such a shimmering skyscape.  But the lyric undercuts the gauzy serene drift-a-long of the track,  Ariel darkly muttering lines like “I just don’t know about love” and “I know everything about hate.”

The name “Bobby Pyn” is an earlier alter ego used by Jan Paul Beahm, better known as Darby Crash, frontman of The Germs. “They’re the  most iconic punk band for me,” says Ariel.  “LA’s claim to fame when it comes to punk. They invented hardcore, inadvertently, but they’re also the most queer and messed-up band ever. Everyone in that band was a genius. They all had very lasting impact -  in my life, and in the world’s life.” Germs drummer Don Bolles would ultimately end up playing in Haunted Graffiti, capping thirty-plus years of “making music and deejaying and dressing like a freak,” in Ariel’s words.

“They all loved Darby, they idolized him,” Ariel continues. “He was such a charismatic person. A cult leader.”  Magnetic but troubled, Crash died from a deliberate heroin overdose on December 7 1980, the day before John Lennon’s murder.  

“The Ballad of Bobby Pyn” doubles as both a luminous elegy for a lost soul and an exorcism of Ariel’s own destructive impulses.  “That was a trance thing, I really wanted to trance it out,” he recalls. “This almost narcoleptic, spun-out feel. Like some drugged-out zone. I wanted an anthem for my alienation. Me with shades on”. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Weimar n'B: The Weeknd

in cerebration of The Idol - nasty, silly drama series starring and built around / built to the creepy specifications of The Weeknd, a show precision-skewered by Alex Barasch in this New Yorker piece  - here's my take on his decadence shtick, written for the Guardian in November 2016

Here in Los Angeles the stations seem to play it once every hour.  “Low Life”, the collaboration between The Weeknd and Future, only dented the Billboard Top 20 on its release, but the tune has dominated radio all through 2016. On the face of it, it’s an unlikely candidate for Song of the Year: a stealthy, subdued groove that feels closer to reggae than rap, a production shivery with eerie flickers of ambient electronic texture. Although The Weeknd is just the “featured” artist, “Low Life” is as much his tune as it’s Future’s. Abél Tesfaye’s swooning falsetto is draped over half the record, while the mood of sombre sensuality is identical to all the other Weeknd songs from 2015 or earlier that have never left the airwaves. 

Radio programmers do their research, they find out what the public wants to hear. If “Low Life” and other Weeknd hits – “The Hills”, “Often”, “Might Not,” plus the title track of Tesfaye’s new album Starboy – reign, it’s clearly by popular demand.  Something about the texture and tone of this Ethiopian-Canadian singer's music speaks to people, speaks to the current moment. So what is it saying?

From his early alt-R&B mixtapes like 2010’s House of Balloons to his commercial breakthrough with 2015’s Beauty Behind The Madness, the Weeknd vibe has been unvaried to the point of fixation.   Dissolution is the atmosphere, the mise en scene, for virtually all his songs.  Take “Might Not”, his collaboration with the rapper Belly (who belongs to Tesfaye’s Toronto clique XO). It’s a blurry snapshot from a long night of chemical excess: Tesfaye, close to passing out, wonders plaintively whether “this time, I might not make it”.  Then there’s “The Hills”, on which Tesfaye sings in near-dissonant tones about a surreptitious relationship, a druggy unromance that only takes place the small hours just before dawn.  The song pivots around the anguished ecstasy of the admission “when I’m fucked up, that’s the real me.” Tesfaye claims that his audience find a liberating honesty in that line, telling an interviewer recently that “it wasn’t until the song blew up that I realized how much of a reality it was in most people’s lives...  People might look at it as a sad reality, but when I perform it, the people sing it with so much joy.”

Joy is hardly the mood communicated by The Weeknd’s songs, though, or conveyed by the arty murk of his videos: uniformly smile-free zones, pretentiously thick with shadow, peopled by starved-looking and dead-eyed models clad in lingerie.  The color-palette is cold blue and purple; the visual motifs and story-board grammar nod to soft porn and horror movies.  In the promo for “Starboy” – yet another self-consciously noir Weeknd video in which it looks like the crew forgot to turn on half the lights - Tesfaye  trashes his luxury penthouse even as the lyrics flaunt all the trophies of fame:  the million-dollar cars, the doubled indulgence of snorting highest-grade cocaine off ebony tables.  Like Drake, the Weeknd can’t resist boasting about the fruits of fame while simultaneously hinting that expensive as they are, they remain cheap thrills: worthless, unsatisfying.

 Hedonism, pursued to the hilt, but creased with emptiness, loneliness and weakness: this was the Weeknd’s subject even before he was successful.  From the start his lyrics  referenced potions, powders and pills; his production trademark was sampling from genres like shoegaze or goth for gauzy wafts of melancholy texture or frayed vocals (most memorably Beach House’s “Master Of None,” as used on “The Party and the After Party,” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’s “Happy House,” for “House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls.”)

The name The Weeknd perhaps expresses the ideal that he aspired to even when hustling and semi-homeless: life as a party that never ever stops.  What the punters experience as a release from the workaday week becomes a perpetual condition for the famous artist (Weeknd performs constantly, rarely visits his home).  But peak experiences, by definition, only make sense – can only really be felt - when they’re surrounded by larger expanses of down time.  Attempting to live on a constant high guarantees ennui and desolation.   Perhaps there’s a second, semi-conscious or unintended resonance to the name The Weeknd, which phonetically sounds like “weakened”. Fey and fragile, Tesfaye’s is the true voice of the faded generation: he sounds drained by over-indulgence , his will to resist eroded by the availability of temptations and easy triumphs. 

The new album promises a slight shift in sonic emphasis away from slow jams and woozy ambience, with uptempo Eighties influences coming to the fore: Prince, Debarge, and, more surprisingly, alternative artists like The Smiths and Bad Brains have all been mentioned by Tesfaye. Brisk and boppy, “False Alarm” sounds like a flashback to electroclash, that Eighties-resurrecting fad of the early 2000s. Then there are the collaborations with Daft Punk, whose own most-loved music harked back to the Eighties, on “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming.”

“Starboy” is named in homage to Bowie, Tesfaye has said. But rather than “Starman”, the true reference point is “Fame”, the glam rocker’s harrowing dispatch from the hollow centre of stardom.  Where Bowie sang obliquely of drugs as a chemical crutch for self-confidence (“what you need you have to borrow”) and the jostling ego games of stars (“is it any wonder I’ll reject you first”),  Abel sings about isolation (“house so empty, need a centerpiece”) and soulless materialism (“we don't pray for love, we just pray for cars”).  Similarly “False Alarm” alludes fleetingly to “a dark philosophy” – perhaps the same sort of spiritualized nihilism referenced in “Might Not,” when Belly raps about how “no religion is the new religion.”

There are other parallels with Bowie in the Seventies.  Decadence was a defining leitmotif for glam:  the apocalyptic notion, at once alarming and alluring, that the West’s trajectory was downward, its civilizational strength rotted away by crumbling values, the loss of a sense of purpose.  Part of the fantasy scenario that Bowie projected towards his fans was the present as a decadent period that would soon be followed by some kind of authoritarian backlash, an idea modelled on the historical precedent of the Weimar Republic’s eclipse by the Third Reich.

When Tesfaye anointed himself “King of the Fall”, it was a reference to an autumn tour, not to Spengler’s Decline and Fall of the West. Still, in the current context of Trump’s triumph –a fame monster spawned by celebrity culture now implausibly cast as the heroic strongman who’ll “drain the swamp” – it’s tempting to imagine the Weeknd as the world’s prime exponent of Weimar’n’B.  His music makes giving in and giving up feel glamorous and irresistible.  While few Weeknd fans will ever get to experience his level of unbridled license, his music offers an aspirational fantasy of corruption and carelessness. Small-scale, low-budget versions are no doubt enacted every weekend.

By this point his louche nihilism has become such a shtick the only way Tesfaye could startle us would be to write a song in praise of the invigorating effects of fresh air and a brisk walk through the countryside. But another way he could surprise – and evolve - would be to address realities outside the solipsistic bubble.  Tesfaye has political views but he chooses to leave them out of his work, telling VMAN magazine that while he admires artists who are able to handle such weighty subject matter, “when I step into the studio I step out of the real world, and it’s therapeutic. It’s an escape.” That’s why, although his fluttery falsetto echoes Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, there’s no counterpart to “Move On Up” or “What’s Going On” in his songbook. Perhaps it would be too much of a leap for The Weeknd to abandon abandonment, swap consciousness-razing for consciousness-raising, and start making woke work.  But you have to wonder what might happen if Tesfaye tried to make virtue sound as seductive as he makes vice.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

RIP Martin Amis

The fiction has receded for me (with the possible exception of Time's Arrow) but I loved his Kingsley-and-dentistry memoir Experience and enjoyed a lot of the reviews IN The War Against Cliche

Here, however, is a sniping Arena piece I wrote in 1991 comparing Amis with Elvis Costello (who'd just released the awful Mighty Like A Rose), arguing they WERE both in the dubious game of the Novel of Our Time / The Album of Our Time and had a tendency to rail bitterly and impotently against "the moronic inferno" of pop culture.

Check out also this piece by the missus comparing Amis favorably with his chum Christopher Hitchens.

Elvis Costello / Martin Amis

Arena, 1991
by Simon Reynolds

Listening to his new album, "Mighty Like A Rose", I had an abrupt insight: Elvis Costello is the Martin Amis of pop. For the people who don't read many books and/or don't listen to many albums anymore, Amis and Costello are the only ones left who dare to go for the grand, over-arching vision of our time. They take the pulse of the age and diagnose the malaise. Nobody else has the ambition or temerity to take on this task, which is why Amis/Costello are seen, by some, as saving graces and solitary saviours.
Amis has made two magnum opus stabs at encapsulating the shittiness of the Eighties in "Money" and "London Fields", with their Dickensian anti-heroes John Self and Keith Talent: repulsive incarnations of the era, pimples on the zeitgeist's backside. Costello, too, has been lunging for the Big Picture's jugular for over a decade. Songs like "Pills and Soap", "Beyond Belief" and "Tokyo Storm Warning" are dystopian panoramas in the tradition of Dylan's  "Desolation Row". His albums are cross-sections of a diseased British body politic, drawing the dots between personal and political squalor, between the husband's brutal fists and the election-winning war ("Armed Forces" was originally titled "Emotional Fascism"). 

 Against this backdrop of degraded private and public language, Amis and Costello dramatise themselves as solitary bulwarks against the "moronic inferno" of popular culture. Amis flinches and shudders at the masturbatory nature of 'remote control' culture (TV, porn, video games). Costello has perennially diatribed against the 'bread and circuses' of tabloid culture, the "chewing gum for the ears" of conveyor belt pop. On his new album, "The Other Side Of Summer" is a predictably vituperative blast against rave culture:  "the dancing was desperate, the music was worse". In Costello's jaundiced eyes, the post-Aciiied scene is merely a culture of consolation, an anaesthetic/amnesiac refuge from an intolerable reality. "Invasion Hit Parade" similarly dramatises Costello as one of the few who refuse to collaborate with the new regime of "non-stop Disco Tex and the Sexolettes".

 For Amis/Costello, one of the reasons the world is in such a state is precisely because no one reads books or listens to albums anymore - or at least the kind of books and the kind of albums that tell you what a state the world is in (precisely the kind they write/record). Both mourn the disappearance of depth in a world of surfaces, slogans and cliches, the withering of attention spans thanks to blip culture. For Amis, the role of the author has been usurped by soap opera, gutter press, even style mags. For Costello, the problem is the decline of the songwriter in the face of a pop culture organised around videos, 12" remixes, the sampler and the dee-jay. In the embattled Amis/Costello worldview, the kind of reader they demand is an endangered species: people who've absorbed a lot of literature, who are schooled in the rock canon, and are thus well-versed enough to get the references that riddle the Amis/Costello ouevre. The prospect of a 'disliterate' population (technically literate, but who never bother to read anything) or, in Costello's case, a rock culture no longer based around the reverential interpretation of lyrics, is terrifying. A future based around TV/video/12 inch rather than novel/album bodes a nightmare world of emotional illiterates, like John Self in "Money" who doesn't have the self-analytical skills to know why he's fucked up, or the teenage girl in "The Other Side of Summer" who's "crying cos she doesn't look like like a million dollars", but "doesn't seem to have the attention span" to work out how media and advertising have messed with her mind.

 In the Amis/Costello universe, stuff is always dying: love, language, truth, the planet are all on their last legs. America has a particularly diabolic status; it's the leading edge of the apocalypse, the original "moronic inferno". The replacement of politics by advertising, the castration of rock'n'roll, a junk culture where porn is the biggest grossing leisure industry, mugging, yuppies, MTV - you name it, the US trailblazed it. Amis and Costello document a Britain slowly succumbing to the crappiest aspects of US mass culture but without the space and the naivete that is America's saving grace. In America, the born-to-run reflex is a safety valve for class antagonisms: people just move on. In Britain, rage festers and turns to bile. Amis/Costello have a vivid grip on the stuffiness of English culture: Amis is good on the modern British pub, stuck between the  fustiness of tradition and the plastic tackiness of the future. Costello could have been a Springsteen, but, growing up in more confined circumstances, became a poet of claustrophobia rather than of wide open spaces.

In their early days, both Costello and Amis were regarded as bitter and twisted misanthropes. Costello talked of how he only understood two emotions, "revenge and guilt"; Amis was reknowned for stories that left a bad taste in the mouth. Although both have mellowed somewhat with age, matured into a more compassionate and humanist outlook, their forte is still the banality of evil and the evil of banality: portraits of bastards, brutes, cheats and crushed inadequates, vividly etched with an insider's insight into what makes a shit tick. Revealingly, neither of them can "do" women. Whether manipulative or manipulated, their female characters are ciphers. Nicola Six, the 'heroine' of "London Fields" is even compared to a black hole, the ultimate misogynist metaphor for the femme fatale/vagina dentata.

But ultimately this misogyny is just a facet of a generally misanthropic worldview. Amis and Costello belong to a peculiarly British strain of the satirical imagination, a tradition that includes Evelyn Waugh, the Ealing and Boulting Brothers comedies and Private Eye. In this fallen world(view), there are no heroes, only shits and shat upon - an odious, privileged minority and the loathsome, downtrodden multitude. "Good' characters aren't admirable, but despicably unwordly and naive, weak and gullible fools like Guy Clinch, the amorous fall guy in "London Fields".

 Amis and Costello give this black, bilious brand of satire an apocalyptic, fin de siecle twist. "London Fields" was at one stage  entitled "Millenium"; new Costello songs like "Invasion Hit Parade" and "Hurry Up Doomsday" are panoramic panic attacks. Through Amis's  paranoid uppercrust eyes, the Portobello Road is transformed into a  hellzone of lowlife iniquity. Costello's distempered gaze pans across a culture rank with the stench of mendacity, rife with "professional liars" and "perpetual suckers", zombies and bloodsuckers. Like all apocalyptic visions, the Amis/Costello worldview is prone to overstatement, over-ripe imagery, a certain stylistic overkill. And one problem always looms for the professional prophet of doom: how to keep on upping the apocalyptic stakes. Both Amis and Costello's future would seem wedded to further deterioration of the social fabric, to the continued viability of 'The End'.

While "Mighty Like A Rose" suggests Costello is condemned to spurting exquisitely crafted bile in perpetuity, Amis has taken a sideways step towards an obliquer angle on the Big Picture. His work-in-progress "Time's Arrow" (previewed in Granta 31) borrows its premise from science fiction: the protagonist experiences time running backwards through the eyes of an American doctor called Tod Friendly. This has the salutary effect of making our everyday human procedures and transactions seem eerie and absurd: all power and energy mysteriously originates from the toilet bowl, kind-hearted pimps give money to whores who then squander it on old men, doctors make their patients sick and ambulances rush victims from their hospital beds and painstakingly insert them into wrecked cars. Although the device has been used before in science fiction and comics, Amis does it well: after reading the Granta excerpt, it takes a couple of hours for the uncanny feeling of time running in reverse to wear off.

Abandoning the omniscient, God's eye view for a baffled and bemused first person is a smart move for Amis, and timely too. The judgemental gaze (seeing through facades, looking down on folly) is too sneery and know-it-all for these dazed and confused postmodern times. In rock, fewer and fewer people look to a Big Figure, a Dylan or Lennon, to tell them "what's goin' on"; instead of a counter culture, there's an array of undergrounds orbiting a lost centre. Contemporary literature offers not The Truth, but a plethora of worlds each with their own singular truth, partial glimpses of the Big Picture. Still fatally hung up on the notion of author-as-oracle, Amis and Costello ply their magisterial trade in an ever-expanding void. 

The leading edge in contemporary fiction and music aims to mirror chaos, not offer salvation from it (the kaleidophrenic whirl of Don DeLillo's writing, My Bloody Valentine's neo-psychedelia). But this cutting edge can be hard to grasp for those who cling to an oldfashioned idea of art as reinforcer of values or source of guidance. These people still look for an angry voice of sanity. Deploring the waning of literacy and the craft of songwriting, but lacking the energy to keep up with the state of the art, these middlebrow types look to Amis and Costello for reassurance: firstly, that the culture is still deteriorating; secondly, that they are on the side of righteousness. In reality, they're part of the problem.