America’s most beloved form of escapism is analysis. We stand convinced that the best way to wrangle onsetting dystopia is via think pieces and historical context. This is the age of late-stage capitalism, this is the age of mass extinction, the age of inexperience, the age of whatever.
Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of, birthed from an obsession with connection-drawing, is terrifying and comforting in turns. He juggles eminently digestible pop riffs with demented minimalism and gut-grasping harmony, plunging into deep seas of color and tearing out threads of melody. The material may feel alien, but the scale of the thing is most decidedly and affectingly human.
Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN) is Daniel Lopatin, award-winning musician, composer and producer whose work is meticulously conceived and obsessed with its own innards and corners. These are hallmarks that have made OPN a very tempting collaborator; in the time since his last studio album, his work has ranged from film scores, to art commissions and straight-up pop production.
“After Garden of Delete, I found myself working on collabs with other artists a lot. That became my life. So I was thinking a lot about music labor in the antiquated sense; the state- or church-appointed artist. It was refreshing and funny to let that energy into my solo work, which suddenly seemed so constrained and private to me. Nothing felt more wrong than making a strictly conceptual album. It needed to be a record of little air-conditioned nightmares that reflected my life as it was.”
Age Of nestles in the psyche somewhere amid space opera, B film, internet addiction, and François Rabelais. One could list off another thirty references in that format that would make perfect sense. The whole album in fact has a kind operatic structure; it’s a set of interconnected songs that loosely address humanity’s abuse of Earth and its fetishistic obsession with understanding itself. The title track, a waltz that operates like an overture, seems to tell a story of a civilization arriving, finding itself, becoming an impersonal machine, and falling apart – all using MIDI-sequenced harpsichords.
“I was just obsessing over the harpsichord because it’s a perfectly dumb machine. No matter how hard you hit it or how softly you strike the keys, it resounds the same way. I wanted to parallax it to the point where it could scream and talk and tell the story of civilization in a monstrous way, the way it should be heard.”
If “Age Of” is excessively zoomed-out, the second track, “Babylon,” is a close-up shot of the author. Babylon is OPN’s ‘I can’t quit you’ love-hate song for New York City, and, somewhat perversely for a song about, as OPN put it in an interview, the “eco-disaster state that the modern city has become,” it comes in the form of a country ballad, grounded in a texture OPN characterizes as “ersatz pedal steel.” It’s fitting that the song’s guest is Prurient, an NYC stalwart noise musician whose whispers and screams tumble across the burnt planes while high-frequency feedback fills the big sky, reminding us that we may never have been modern at all.
For the most part, the record shifts between songs and instrumentals, and track three, “Manifold,” is a sort of classic OPN-torqued, text-soaked instrumental that preps us for “The Station,” a song that was originally composed as a demo for Usher, whom OPN met while he was on tour with Anohni.
“I had this idea of doing a throwback Jermaine Dupri-style hook for Usher, but through the looking glass. So, it is a sex jam in some sense, but from the perspective of an unknowable body. R&B meets Hellraiser.”
“Toys 2” was inspired by a clause in Robin Williams’ last will and testament preventing his CGI likeness from being used in any posthumous media. The deeply satisfying instrumental imagines a forbidden sequel to 1992’s nightmare-comedy Toys and delves into the psychological impact of acquiring a much-coveted item. “The song is really in two halves, and the first half is idyllic – capitalism in full gear, the promise of a good life via shiny new things. The second half is when the ennui sets in, and the passion wears off: a McMansion filled with grotesque SkyMall sculptures scores your melancholy.”
From here the album moves from songs that reflect on humanity’s flourishing in oblivious full swing to songs that envision our careening towards extinction. The lyrics on “Black Snow” take their inspiration from Nick Land and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, which he co-founded: a 1990s collective of artist-philosophers that produced works of performance art, poetry, and fiction and is most definitely worth a late-night internet spiral or two. The original text is detoured into a lyric that equates the incomprehensible hugeness of nuclear war to UHF fuzz, while addressing the idea that we are a species destined for confusion. The song’s breakdown is actually courtesy of a gonzo bowed instrument, invented by Hans Reichel in 1987, called the Daxophone, and the outro is dominated by a kind of house music-inspired organ riff shot through waves of noise. It’s an extremely catchy, albeit mutated pop song whose ancestry might fall somewhere between the mood of The Seventh Continent and Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.”
“myriad.industries” is a harpsichord interlude, a kind of intermission that serves as a deep breath, preparing us for the emotional heart of the record. “Warning” explodes out of the gate, an expression of what OPN calls “satanic mid-century optimism.” Sitars take the lead on this track, “perverted appropriations that hippies used to fill a spiritual chasm in the wake of the continued American expansionist nightmare that ensconced reality after the war.” Prurient reinforces the narrative with a minimalist lyric: “in the glass house, it’s disgusting. warning.”
If “Warning” springs from mid-century dread, “We’ll Take It” is destined for the used-car lot of capitalist ennui.
““We’ll Take It” is what happened to hippies in the ’80s; they became good capitalists. We bought Trump the same way we impulse-buy a car on a lot. We don’t really wanna know what’s going on under the hood, we’re just kind of titillated by some false new horizon.”
It’s a dark, facetious song that fuses industrial sounds, ecstatic and reckless synths, and something OPN described as “sideways ragtime” piano played by James Blake, whose contributions are felt throughout the record. “I needed to work with a brilliant producer, someone who was coming from the music side. James’ mixes are alive and vibrant with his compositional sensibilities. We worked very well together for this reason.”
“Same” is gorgeous, massive, and darkly uplifting. It was written specifically for Anohni and springs out of the deep, disturbed core of Age Of. There are few things more stunning or affecting than Anohni’s voice, and here it is deployed at a perfect, soul-saving moment. A mantra about digital self-imprisonment and the paradox of becoming post-human, “Same” shows us that where we are going may be where we have been all along.
At this point, the album is essentially a memento mori for the Anthropocene, now addressing the Earth without us. Next comes “RayCats,” a melancholic instrumental with the most incredibly fascinating back story we’ve ever heard.
“The song title refers to the Human Interference Task Force. Essentially a group of semioticians, engineers, and anthropologists who got together to brainstorm methods by which future species – humans, aliens, or whoever is left here thousands of years from now – would be warned when going near long-lost stores of dangerous radioactive waste. An idea was to genetically modify cats, so they would glow when they were near radiation. Then humanity would set out on the path of collectively generating folklore about these cats so that whoever encounters them in the future might intuit their purpose. “Raycats” is my contribution to the cause.”
Toward the end of our sideways journey through self-destruction, “Still Stuff That Doesn’t Happen” is a song about, of all things, the miraculous improbability of existence. Featuring Anohni and percussionist Eli Keszler, the track recalls the eclecticism of ’90s out-jazz groups such as The Lounge Lizards and Morphine. Lyrically the song observes the overlooked and marginalized aspects of perception, and questions our ability to dismiss anything as uninteresting, as unimportant, as “still stuff.” It’s a pretty torqued approach to optimism, but a welcome one.
The album closer is an epilogue called “Last Known Image of a Song,” which features Kelsey Lu on keyboards. OPN calls it a “shrug emoji in song form.” It’s our bridge back to real life, our exit music, our release from the theater. There is an ambivalence and ease to the song that suggests that our questions don’t require answers music can provide.
Age Of should be terrifying, but it is unrelentingly gorgeous. OPN’s obsession with modernities throughout history, and our need to self-soothe through its premature lens, comes, ultimately, from a place of deep affection. He views our moment from a distance and spins it into something hard and beautiful, and our air-conditioned nightmare looks pretty tantalizing from this angle.
– Nadia Sirota