A year is a long time in the world of pop music, and it’s hard to believe that an incredible three years has passed since the release of Ariel Pink’s game-changing album Before Today. Before that, he’d been a lo-fi oddball, a seemingly deliberately obscure artist as likely to be responsible for a piece of unlistenable mucking about as he was for a warped slice of vintage FM pop music.
Before Today changed all that, and ‘Round & Round’ was the moment when his peculiar genius asserted itself. Over a bed of hazy Hall & Oates-esque synths, Pink and the rest of his Haunted Graffiti craft an ode to music itself, a shimmering and cracked tribute to the very concept of ‘the band’. As a piece of meta-pop, playing with conventions, form and definition, it’s positively masterful. As a pop song in its own right, the song is an enduring and moving piece of work, cementing Pink’s reputation as one of pop’s premier pranksters. Lady Gaga might think she’s being iconic, but really, Ariel Pink knows where it’s at.
With a highly compressed production giving the song the feel of a well played 7”, Pink goes through some of the construction of the song (“It’s got a memory, and refrain”), whilst using the lyrics to implement the form. The song’s first breakdown is charted by Pink’s hushed whispers of “Breakdown… break it down… breakdown”, before the song explodes into one of the most finely crafted choruses of recent years.
With a soaring, somehow classic melody, Pink outlines the roles in the imaginary band, assigning the listener roles of “air guitar”, “eardrums”, and “frontman”, whilst his Haunted Graffiti give the perfect facsimile of late 70s or early 80s soft rock. Except that it it’s not a facsimile. There’s something genuinely arresting in the performance, every musician displaying a talent and craft that completely shatters the ‘slacker’ tag that seems to dog Ariel Pink. A weirdo charlatan simply wouldn’t be able to write something like this, a song that feels new, yet simultaneously like something pulled from our collective memory. ‘Round & Round’ pulls off the incredible feat of sounding fresh, but also like something that has ALWAYS existed, like a crucial building block of music itself.
The rest of the album played similar games, with varying degrees of success, but ‘Round & Round’ acted as the gateway to this fascinating artist’s back catalogue, as well as pointing the way to his future. Suddenly, his murky tape recorded experiments sounded less like punishing endurance tests, and more like classic pop songs that had become warped after being left in the sun too long. His follow up album, Mature Themes, might just be even better, injecting a dose of surrealistic and puerile humour to the writing, as well as sharpening up the hooks. It’s not always an easy listen, but even when he’s testing the limits of the listener, Pink does so by crafting hooks that stick in the memory long after the song finishes.
But for now, simply stick on ‘Round & Round’ and just bathe in it. Whatever audio journey it takes you, it will, be the perfect soundtrack for it, such is the luxurious beauty of this incredible piece of pop. Steven Rainey