Coco Chanel once said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” This concept must seem entirely alien to Ariel Pink (born Ariel Rosenberg), who’s founded his style not simply on the half-ironic repurposing of campy pop tropes, but haphazardly fitting in as many as possible; his songs are tottering sculptures held together with DayGlo shoelaces and hot pink headbands. Scraped clean of the L.A. musician’s forcefully lo-fi aesthetic, Before Today nonetheless keeps up most of his old tricks, jamming pieces of sonic trash together like disparate puzzle pieces.
Rosenberg’s past albums minimized the borrowed aspect of such wholesale larceny by presenting these elements as if yanked straight from a dumpster: filthy with distortion and still coated with little bits of lettuce. Yet the fact that the production quality has been ramped up here, dropping the cheap-sounding illusion entirely, does little to affect how alien most of these songs still sound. Even when the mix is sparkly clean (such as the bubbly instrumental “Reminiscences”), his hijacking of glassine ’80s synth textures often feels queasily inexact, faithful but still slightly deranged.
There are times when the garish rehash feels a tad too on the nose. “Fright Night (Nevermore)” is effectively cheesy but not much else, stuck in a kind of quasi-literal new-wave imitation that succeeds only as a duplicate. At this point in Rosenberg’s career, questions of whether he’s a deadly serious weirdo or a joker consistently taking the piss seem immaterial. But the worst songs here are certainly the cockiest, the ones that don’t twist and subvert their source motifs as much as inhabit them and gloat. At its worst, Before Today sounds like turgid, watered-down Prince.
Luckily, there’s an inborn sense of propulsion, not only from track to track, but repeatedly within the songs themselves. It’s unclear whether the move from Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint to the more prestigious 4AD has something to do with the dropping of the lo-fi shtick, but it was definitely a good choice. Freed from focusing on recording his material to sound like crap, he gets the chance to really make it sing: Much of the album is beautiful and dynamic even when it feels totally silly.
Rosenberg still uses dissonance as an escape hatch, often jettisoning pieces of songs by churning them into rubble, before shifting over to totally new melodies. His voice is employed similarly. Besides instituting sudden stops and changing deliveries on a dime, it’s also used as a distancing tool, oscillating from alliance with the styles he’s aping to manic rebellion against them. “Revolution’s a Lie” shifts from complete commitment to a dingy Ian Curtis vibe to a series of yelps and screeches. On “Beverly Kills,” he does both Vincent Price and Michael Jackson from “Thriller,” veering from cackle to thin falsetto.
Mostly, Rosenberg effectively exploits his new environs to create a sense of comfort, which helps distract from how annoying his personality can often become. The nostalgia-inflected atmosphere doesn’t call for much lyrical culpability, allowing idiotic clunkers like “Castrate me/Rape me/Make me gay” to pass by mostly unnoticed. It’s similar to the overall method, which recycles the sounds of an era (good, bad, and everything in between), distorting and flattening them just enough to create a design whose persuasive tackiness is ultimately winning.