Age Of… what, exactly? That question mark hangs over much of the desperately bleak music on Oneohtrix Point Never’s latest album. The genre, mood, tempo, and volume clashes that comprise the electronic maestro’s music build into a chaotic portrait of our times, where nothing is certain and all attempts at a coherent understanding of what’s going on are eventually swallowed up in a ball of confusion that’s as menacing as the bass on “Black Snow”.
Oneohtrix Point Never is the alias of Daniel Lopatin, a New York-based composer of dark electronic suites and film soundtracks (Replica, Garden of Delete, Good Time, Chuck Person’s Eccojams) whose impressive sonic imagination and sure grasp of how to craft narrative out of music has helped him to stand out from the crowd of underground producers and gained him global attention. Whilst not as consistent or mesmerising as Burial, his manipulation of synthesisers and the logical flow of his ideas happens to evince the same clarity of thought, and he frequently exhilarates to nearly the same level. Few others have done as convincing a job in updating ’80s new age tropes for our exponentially technologically advanced era.
In order to create Age Of, Lopatin retreated from the smidgeon of fame offered to him by his score for the Good Time soundtrack and decided to make this album alone in South Central Massachusetts on the Connecticut border, in a suburban town where he stayed in an “alien egg glass house”. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lopatin revealed that this self-imposed isolation in a strange building was “terrifying” but creatively stimulating, leading to the creation of an album of “weird, little nightmare ballads”. The interviewer describes him as a “kind of Black Lodge Bon Iver”. Lopatin replies, drolly: “That’s a very Rolling Stone comment, but I’ll take it.”
I quote that last bit because it amuses me and because, truthfully, I enjoy the Rolling Stone interview a lot more than the album itself. Lopatin comes across as articulate, interesting, engaging, and funny – usually at the same time – and his shrugging off of the pomposity inherent in the interview process makes me want to like Age Of more than I do.
The truth is that, as a conduit for the darkness of our age, it’s less focussed and rambles more than the best of his previous music. You can sense the paranoia created by working in an “alien egg glass house” alone at night, but paranoia so often switches the brain off to reality, and an injection of some of the earthiness displayed in that Rolling Stone interview could really have done wonders to the overall cohesion of the album.
It starts with the title track, and with a lone harpsichord that acts as an old-fashioned signifier and soon has to do battle with thumping drums and skittering industrial beats. Is it implying that we’ve lost some of our innocence from bygone eras? That the modern era is defined by chaos, where the past ones were more stable? I’d like to think that Lopatin isn’t so simple-minded; chaos and violence have been perhaps the defining features of human civilisation since the beginning. Yet listening to this track, I’m not so sure.
What follows in the remaining 12 tracks are more stories about darkness and lightness contending with each other, a musical Jekyll and Hyde defined by the oxymoron of the title “Black Snow”. There is the soft rock melody and auto-tuned pop sensibility of “Babylon” on the one hand, and the menacing industrial clamour of “Same” on the other. There is the somewhat sweet soundtrack for an imaginary Pixar film called “Toys 2”, with synthesisers that sound like they’re cooing “ooh ooh”, but Randy Newman doesn’t have to worry – overall the aura is restless, unable to fix upon a melody, and unsettling, so that the only toys it evokes are the ones in Toy Story with the jumbled up body parts that freaked you out as a kid. There is the slow chord progression of “We’ll Take It”, which would sound almost hopeful if sped up, but slowed to a crawl sounds funereal and oppressive.
There is duality everywhere on the album, which might spark intellectual interest if you believe the world really is only made up of darkness and lightness, but hey even The Monkees figured out decades ago that there’s “Shades of Gray”.
So file this album under intriguing misstep, and too simplistic a descent into horror-filled soundscapes. Return to Lopatin’s former glories to remind yourself of how music can shine a muted, flickering light into the darkness that surrounds us, by exposing the infinite – and infinitely fascinating – shades of gray in our world rather than surrendering to the void, like a Black Lodge Bon Iver