Coming to terms with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s Before Today

Three years late, I’m coming to terms with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s Before Today. I hated “Round and Round” when I first heard it as a free Amazon download, I hated the whole fucking album when I picked it up after seeing it place at no. 9 on Pitchfork’s year-end list in 2010, and I hated Today again when I played it once more last week when a younger friend mentioned he preferred it to the more-recent Mature Themes, which Robert Christgau has praised a year late at his blog Expert Witness and which I’ve still not heard. Well, maybe I’ll seek that newer one out soon because after sufficient attentive listening I’ve gotten to a good place with Before Today—not a great album, but in some ways a joy to puzzle over. Let me explain.

On the surface, this is a frustrating mess of aural pastiche. If you’re content to just let it wash over you as sensation, perhaps it could be pleasurable, but only if these snatches of color and texture are your kind of thing (they’re definitely not my kind of thing). Those snatches include the sunny sounds of a psychedelic ‘60s handed down to us younger folks as cultural lore. Note however that this lore is not particularly faithful to the actual historical or aural facts that remain from that watershed decade—even the Beach Boys were materialists and grounded their music in the sound of imperfect young voices; even Magical Mystery Tour communicates a certain cynicism and disenchantment. In contrast, the affect on Before Today suggests the surface sheen of a manufactured consumer good and nothing more: it is brittle, intentionally shallow, chintzy. And I promise you that the words I’ve picked out of the mix thus far are not worth attending to—save yourself and avoid “Menopause Man,” trust me.

All of that said, subsequent listens have proven that there is a musical logic at work here that I did not pick out the first time through. I agree with other reviewers that there is a strong prog rock influence, but that influence is stylistic rather than philosophical or aspirational. In other words, I don’t hear a desire to wow or baffle us with musical complexity or technical virtuosity, but instead hear Pink and his cohorts delighting in the surface details of Curved Air or Van der Graaf Generator and seeking to toss them together into some kind of hip pandemonium. In the end, it comes out sounding a little bit like the Tropicália of Os Mutantes—an overloaded series of doodles and outbursts strung together in atypical song forms in which puzzling out the details is part of the aesthetic fun.

Is it worth it? Maybe. Does it mean anything? I worry that maybe it doesn’t. Sensation can be a delight, but it can also be shallow, and the words and voices provided here are too abstract at best and dishearteningly vague at worst. Given the effort required to really dig into the album’s musical reasoning, this is disappointing. Which is why I no longer think the dim lyrical content stems from a lack of talent—instead I now worry it’s a lack of effort. Perhaps the Mature Themes promised on the follow up will include a better work ethic.

— Bradley Sroka, guest contributor