UP 'TIL NOW, listening to Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti has been like panning for gold. The claustrophobic home recordings created by Pink (born Ariel Marcus Rosenberg) from countless layers of overdubs contained nuggets of astonishingly beautiful pop music, but finding them took a lot of sifting—much of Pink's incredibly dense lo-fi symphonies led to glittering dead ends, or music that was so compact that to make headway took a lot of energy and a very careful ear. It was never background music, and often the sensation of listening to an entire album by Pink was of woozy over-saturation.
Before Today, the new album from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, is a different beast altogether. It's a miraculously inventive pop album that is just as dense as anything Pink has done in the past—in other words, denser than anything not constructed by Brian Wilson—but whether it's due to improved recording conditions or Pink's concentrated plan of attack, there's enough light and space on Before Today that the listener's overall sensation is of livewire elation rather than seasickness. There's been no dearth of releases from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti since Animal Collective's Paw Tracks label released The Doldrums in 2004, but virtually all of it was culled from his prolific home recordings, most of which pre-dated 2002. Before Today is not only the first album he's recorded as an album, as a self-contained project rather than a collection of tracks laying around, it's practically the only new material Pink has recorded in over half a decade.
Pink's reason for the lag was money: He was waiting for a good paycheck, he claims (the right one came from 4AD, who didn't just offer him a deal but financed the pro studio recording of Before Today). As mercenary as that sounds, one listen to Before Today proves that it was exactly the right move. He agrees it was the hardest thing he's ever worked on—leaving behind the comfort zone of his cassette 8-track and his method of making all the percussion parts with his mouth—to assemble a band and work in a studio. "[It] has its pros and cons like everything," he says. "Work is gratifying in some spiritual sense."
It's the sound of AM Gold, filtered through a post-millennial, information-age sensibility—there isn't a second of Before Today that doesn't hold some intriguing tone or musical turn of phrase. Bits of it whoosh up like a dream-memory come to life, creating a spooky sense of ethereal nostalgia, while others simply sound more far-out than anything you've heard before. And amazingly, a lot of it is easy listening, or at least gentle and rollicking enough to make any number of "lite" radio playlists, if those things could ever possess a sense of adventure.
Take "Round and Round," the track that's gotten the lion's share of attention. It's a great song, and an undeniable single. ("I personally would never have chosen it as the obvious single—credit must be given to 4AD on that call," Pink says.) But it's even better than it needs to be; its magnificent sing-along chorus is only the tip of an iceberg that also includes a cycling, marimba-laden riff, countermelodies stacked on top of each other, a few more extra bridges than necessary—the "sentimental heartbreaking" section, specifically, is the left turn that rockets the song into the stratosphere. And it all still sounds like something your dad might've played on the car radio, in between "Eye in the Sky" by the Alan Parsons Project and "Joanna" by Kool and the Gang.
After a rocky start as a solo live performer, Pink has come into his own as a bandleader. Asked if he's grown into the role, or whether the audience needed to catch up to what he was doing, he says diplomatically, "We're both right on time!" He's also weirdly turned into a sort of figurehead for the chillwave/glo-fi scene, which only tangentially matches his brand of ultra lo-fi. "It's all very trendy and fashionable," says Pink, "but I really don't care about what people call anything in regards to music. There are always a select few good things and a bunch of terrible things in any scene I guess. History decides."
In the meantime, Pink has shrugged off the home-recording savant mantle that he's acquired through his extensive back catalog, to become something different: a master of immaculately crafted pop music. Everything he's done before clearly points the way to where he is now, and those dizzy recordings no longer seem willfully strange so much as the product of no-budget necessity. Now with label backing and a broader audience, Pink has proven that he's pretty much capable of doing whatever he wants. Not that his previous methods are entirely forgotten, he says.
"Well, my mouth and 8-track will always be there if I need them. Members come and go, but as long as I'm still breathing, I may as well stay open to that possibility."