Daniel Lopatin's Magic Oneohtrix Point Never Is a Creative Refuge from 2020
The electronic composer's latest album is an enjoyable, if flawed, showcase of his incredible talent for composition and sound work.
Originally published on 11/3/20.
It’s kind of hard to know exactly where to start when talking about Daniel Lopatin. The musician and composer best known as Oneohtrix Point Never has gradually been carving out a name for himself in the experimental electronic scene for more than a decade now, releasing project after project of boundary-pushing, creatively bizarre music. Out of all the artists creating forward-thinking electronic music in the 21st century, Lopatin has consistently stood out as one of the most talented and genre-prolific; he has never been afraid to dip his toes into something new, yet he always retains his signature style.
Lopatin’s first few releases under the OPN name consisted of synth-based ambient music, a lengthy compilation of which won him widespread acclaim. He would later move on to sampling and plunderphonics with the excellent Replica in 2011, building entire musical pieces out of samples from old TV commercials. Later, R Plus Seven saw his arrangements get even more wacked-out as he experimented with cheap virtual instruments and presets, creating an album that no one else could possibly have made. Meanwhile, 2015’s Garden of Delete remains Lopatin’s finest project to date, a near-perfect distillation of everything that makes him such an interesting and compelling figure in electronic music. Lopatin has since achieved more exposure than ever after composing the scores for the Safdie brothers’ excellent films Good Time and Uncut Gems, providing an essential layer of anxiety that flawlessly compliments the siblings’ chaotic directing style. (The former won him the Cannes Soundtrack Award, and the latter would only be about half as panic-inducing if it weren’t for Lopatin.) He has also worked alongside artists such as ANOHNI, Moses Sumney, FKA twigs, Tim Hecker, and The Weeknd.
Lopatin’s new album Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is yet another creative, wide-ranging album from the composer that showcases the experimental soundplay he has all but mastered. The atmospheres and sound effects he crafts on this record are consistently impressive, and serve to show just how far he’s come since the mid-2000s. Like his past releases, many of the songs here have loose, free-flowing structures that are put together in a manner that only Lopatin could conjure up. Ambient pieces, slow-jam synthpop, and experimental freakouts abound on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, and while these experiments don’t always pan out, they are still nothing if not thoroughly engrossing in the moment. Even when the album falters, there’s still a strangely nostalgic, childlike, and fun aspect to it that is maintained throughout its 47-minute runtime.
Magic Oneohtrix Point Never was recorded over the span of just a few months during lockdown resulting from the ongoing pandemic. Lopatin aimed to create an album that emulated the experience of FM radio, inspired by a revisiting of radio mixtapes he had made from the late 90s to the early 2000s. (Side note: The name “Oneohtrix Point Never” is a mondegreen of a radio station Lopatin listened to growing up in Boston called Magic 106.7. As you can probably guess, the album title is also an homage to the station.) To help with this concept, the tracklist is broken up by four “Cross Talk” interludes; these tracks largely consist of heavily manipulated radio ads over a bed of Lopatin’s signature bizarre synth work and sound design. Though the overall album experience may not scream “FM radio” upon first or even fifth listen, it does start to make more sense when you consider that Lopatin was leaning more towards the idea of turning the dial on an old radio, messy static and all.
Lopatin’s knack for experimental arrangements and unique sound design is yet again on full display on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. Radio samples collide with vintage synthesizers, watery sound effects flow over a riverbed of sub bass, and nature ambience settles over fluttering woodwinds. Despite how chaotic the experience often is, it’s strangely relaxing, too (a sharp contrast to his film scoring work, which is generally more melodically-focused and yet unbelievably stressful). And like Lopatin’s 2018 album Age Of, there is a noticeably larger focus on synthpop, with tracks like “Long Road Home,” “No Nightmares,” “Lost but Never Alone,” and “Nothing’s Special” possessing more palatable and catchy structures than the majority of his past work. The disparity between the poppier tracks and the constantly evolving experimental pieces somehow feels natural; Lopatin makes most of these tracks seem like they indeed belong on the same project.
When it comes to traditionally structured tracks on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, “Long Road Home” just might be the strongest. Featuring washed-out vocals from both Lopatin and art pop figure Caroline Polachek, the song contains a simple 808-heavy rhythm, staccato strings, and the album’s single catchiest synth melody. (Also a weird and disturbing stop-motion music video that’s probably NSFW.) Lopatin and Polachek sing cryptic lyrics that may be about two lovers transcending reality; it’s hard to say. Regardless, the vocals and lyrics complement the lush, beautifully arranged instrumentation extremely well, and it’s arguably the album’s finest track.
Meanwhile, out of all the purely experimental pieces on this album, the best has to be “Imago.” Though it’s one of the simplest tracks here, it’s easily one of the most compelling. The song largely consists of a pretty, somber, and understated lo-fi synth loop that slowly morphs and grows over time, a gentle and relaxing pool of white noise underneath it. Suddenly the loop becomes almost completely corroded, adding an unexpected abrasiveness to it. Two-and-a-half minutes in, it is joined by a beautiful, evolving synth orchestra that sends chills down the listener’s spine; it soon drops out, leaving the destroyed loop to close out the track, accompanied by a lone synth lead. (Think Arca meets The Disintegration Loops.) Simple but effective, “Imago” is an absolutely gorgeous and emotionally potent piece of ambient music that serves as yet more proof of Lopatin’s compositional abilities.
Continuing the tradition started on Garden of Delete, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never features vocals and lyrics on several tracks. Where Garden (in)famously boasts a computerized voice singing completely indecipherable lyrics that you have to look up to understand (only adding to that album’s mystique), the new album features the vocals of Lopatin himself, heavily manipulated and autotuned. Like past albums, the lyrics here are largely cryptic, but for the most part they go a long way in complimenting the songs they appear on, adding another layer of wonder to them.
As strong as Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is, though, there are very noticeable flaws. “I Don’t Love Me Anymore” is the album’s weakest track by miles; it contains a structure that isn’t particularly interesting, a somewhat muddy mix, and vocal melodies that are not only bland and overly saturated with effects, but also distractingly off-key. Slow R&B jam “No Nightmares,” while a perfectly fine and pretty song, sticks out like a sore thumb on this album, and The Weeknd’s feature admittedly doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Lastly, even though listening to this album is hardly a boring experience, a few tracks here and there simply fail to stick in the listener’s head despite numerous listens, and the overall experience is not as cohesive or impactful as much of Lopatin’s past work.
Overall, though, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is yet another wildly creative and compelling offering from the experimental electronic auteur, albeit one that isn’t likely to win over a whole lot of skeptics. Packed with expertly crafted sounds, gorgeous atmospheres, ingenious synth patches, and inventive arrangements, the album is a genuinely enjoyable body of work that warrants repeat listens. It may not stick in your craw like, say, Replica or Garden of Delete, but it’s still an impressive record by one of modern electronic music’s living legends, and it serves as a fun if fleeting escape from this awful, awful year.
Listen to Magic Oneohtrix Point Never on Apple Music or Spotify below.