First Look: Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Before Today”

Before TodayIn March, Hipster Runoff, The Colbert Report of indie rock, preemptively ruined the conversation about Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s much-anticipated new album by, well, saying it was much-anticipated.

“In the post-chill wave / ternative era, we are in a position to finally ‘embrace’ Ariel Pink. Maybe we have grown up, and learned more about what we want ‘good music’ to be,” Carles wrote. “Rallying around Ariel Pink might be our last chance to turn our backs on the mainstreamication of indie. The Great Lo-Fi Hope will save us from what we have become.”

For those (select few?) who listen to this kind of music based on actually liking it rather than its hipness quotient/Pitchfork rating, this may sound a little Theater of the Absurd, but all the same, writing about this record after Carles’ skewering feels a bit like walking into a trap, as does the almost unavoidable urge to use the phrase “godfather of chillwave” (or “nostalgia” or “melted tapes from my mom’s basement that I lived in until I was like 30” or… you get the idea). Nevertheless, Before Today happens to be a really good album that deserves some words. Here they are.

I’ve seen Ariel Pink live just once, opening for of Montreal, and found his set half inspired pop and half unlistenable noise. Before Today finds him mostly ditching the latter. As its title implies, it is a distinctly non-modern record – Pink seems to have no interest in bass lines performed after Thriller (or at least Bad) or synthesizers invented after the Blade Runner soundtrack. Pink is 31, a child of the Reagan years -– if tracks like “Can’t Hear My Eyes” or “Round and Round” seem like half-remembered ‘80s singles, it’s because those are his memories.

If you’re looking for winks and nods in this record, you can find them: “Fright Night (Nevermore)” likely pays thematic, if not musical, tribute to Thriller; the line “Knock knock / on the door” is pulled straight from the B-52’s 1989 “Love Shack” without any sense of kitsch or irony. That’s really the rub here — in the wake of grunge and the post-punk revival, the melodramatic music of bands like the Cure (or, say, Cyndi Lauper) has gone through so many cycles of revilement and revival that it seems a worthless effort to gauge Pink’s sense of humor – or sarcasm – in drawing on these sounds and influences. For the selfish sake of my own enjoyment, I’m choosing to believe that Pink’s efforts here come from appreciation, not irony. More importantly, Before Today is less a dutiful (or ironic) homage than it is a musician who heard stylistic possibilities left open in past eras and chose to explore them. Why, after all, should Vangelis have all the fun?

Which is not to say that this is all Breakfast Club-ready. Pink’s older, druggier sound rears its ugly head as the album kicks into its second half. “Butt-House Blondes'” aloof lead vocal and alternately shimmering, hammering riffs evokes the Church’s New Wave take on classic rock, if more pill-addled and dangerous. “Little Wig” is a similarly surreal reverb-buried trip through ‘70s hard rock. For all the online embrace of Pink’s new sound as bright and single-ready (“Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Round and Round,” particularly), plenty of tracks are muted and, yes, lo-fi, the seeming product of analog tapes and smokey basement sessions.

In essence, Ariel Pink has matured without quite growing up. Before Today is an occasionally sophomoric, intentionally weird record, a halfway point between broad-appeal pop and, if we must so dignify it, “art”; a breakthrough album from an artist who doesn’t want to break through. He may yet shrug off his noisier leanings and start making Killers albums (and I’d love to see him try), but for now, he seems content to keep hanging from the chandeliers of his own cavernous mind. The ‘80s aren’t here again, Before Today argues – they never really left.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – “Round and Round”: mp3

(Pre-order Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today on Amazon; it’s due June 8 on 4AD)

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