Two years ago, Daniel Lopatin was the last person onstage at the Pitchfork Music Festival. Someone at the festival had booked Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never as counter-programming to FKA twigs, the festival’s final-night headliner. This move probably enraged at least a few fans of glitchy avant-synth music who were forced to choose one or the other. For me, though, it was perfect. For whatever reason, Lopatin kept playing for a lot longer than twigs did. Tired after a long festival weekend, I left and walked back to my hotel, alone. The lights of the festival were behind me, and the lights of downtown Chicago, a crystalline miracle of architecture, were in front of me. When you’re that exhausted and you’re still processing everything you’ve seen and done over the weekend, you feel like you’re in some liminal space. Daniel Lopatin makes weirdly ideal liminal-space music. All around me, thrumming, filling the air, was Lopatin’s depressed electro-squiggle churn. It made me feel like I was walking through a blank, endless void. I’ll never forget it.
Ever since we met him, in the final days of the last decade, Lopatin has been making liminal-space music — inward-seeking electronic instrumentals that speak to decay and unrest and anxiety. There’s always been real beauty in Lopatin’s music, but he’s been happy to deface that beauty, intruding on it with clammy fade-outs, layering sounds over each other in ways that sometimes make me physically queasy. Every time he puts out a record, I end up pausing it multiple times, making sure that the chaos of what I’m hearing isn’t a result of me accidentally listening to music in a bunch of open internet tabs at once. (At least once, I’ve finished listening to one of his albums and realized that I have been listening to music in a bunch of open internet tabs at once.)
That disorienting quality to Lopatin’s records has always kept me at arm’s length. I’ve admired his music but had a tough time, for the most part, enjoying it. In fact, until the brand-new Age Of, my favorite work of Lopatin’s was probably his score for the intense and deeply stressful 2017 indie thriller Good Time. That soundtrack is probably the most linear music that Lopatin has ever made, and its unrelenting propulsion definitely drives the movie’s sweaty, hallucinatory pulse. But now, with Age Of, Lopatin has made something truly staggering. It’s not really any less disorienting than his past records. It’s just that now the music is disorienting in ways that project mystery and stillness, not just insanity and rupture.
Age Of is the Oneohtrix Point Never album where Lopatin holds back the most, and I think it’s fair to give some of the credit for that to his collaborators. As on every Oneohtrix album, Lopatin is the main driving creative force — the composer, the performer, the producer, even the writer of lyrics when there are lyrics. But this time around, he has help. The DIY noise producer Dominick Fernow, who records as Prurient, lends his demonic black-metal howl — always unsettling, always buried deep in the mix — to a few songs. Experimental-music types Kelsey Hu and Eli Keszler add keyboards and drums, respectively, on several tracks apiece. Anohni’s singular voice appears on a few songs — though, in what I take to be a beautiful display of Lopatin’s own hubris, Lopatin sometimes mixes Anohni’s voice much lower than his own. And most crucially, James Blake is on board, adding keyboards and additional production and mixing the whole album.
That mixing job is key. For the first time, a Oneohtrix Point Never album sounds clean — full of magnetic negative space and room to breathe. Lopatin will still interrupt a moment of fragile, ringing beauty with a blurp of digital noise. But this time around, the digital noise is so lovingly recorded, in such high fidelity, that it has its own kind of beauty. The result is an astonishing headphones record, a piece of finely textured sound that gently rips you out of your own reality and takes you someplace else.
The first thing we hear on Age Of is a harpsichord, spare and elegant and quiet. (In a press release, Lopatin says that he loves harpsichords because the instrument is a “perfectly dumb machine.” Harpsichords are all over the album.) In the album-opening title track instrumental, Lopatin’s harpsichords and bass-burbles and operatic samples are perfectly quiet and still, in ways that remind me of the tingling music-box dings of Aphex Twin’s “Jynweythek.” And yet these elements aren’t always in perfect sync with each other. Sometimes they drift just out, and sometimes they cluster in ways that feel damaged and frightening, like these beautiful sounds are about to swarm together to do us harm.
Age Of is full of things like this — familiar sounds turned threatening, moments of contemplation laced with a slight nightmarish edge. “Babylon” sounds like a sad sentient computer attempting to write an old-timey country lament. Lopatin says that it’s his song about New York, where he lives, but the lyrics are hazy enough that they feel like a universal love song about any dying thing: “It’s not that I don’t get it / I really think I do / We wanted it to be different / But that’s not happening anytime soon.” Lopatin sings it himself, doing a sort of high-lonesome croon over music that might’ve played in the background while Steve Jobs demonstrated the abilities of first-generation Macs. Meanwhile, “The Station” is spare, chilly mutant R&B. Lopatin says that he originally wrote it as a demo for Usher, and it’s a real shame that Usher didn’t seize on it. I’d pay real money to hear that buttery coo talking about “I wanna see inside the alien / I wanna feel your organs inside out.”
The whole thing is so beautiful and strange and off-kilter and absorbing — a lovely and insular personal pop album, warped beyond all recognition. In its combination of contentment and dread, it feels weirdly resonant in a late-capitalist America where we always feel like we can see societal collapse coming around the next bend in the road. It’s a poignant reminder that those lights in that beautiful Chicago skyline won’t be glittering forever.
Age Of is out 6/1 on Warp.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kanye West’s as-yet-unheard, as-yet-untited MAGA-wave album.
• Father John Misty’s lushly personal and relentlessly clever God’s Favorite Customer.
• Neko Case’s gorgeously seething roots-rocker Hell-On.
• Natalie Prass’ lushly funky The Future And The Past.
• Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay’s self-titled debut as LUMP.
• Tancred’s catchy, incisive Nightstand.
• Ghost’s pop-metal theatrical production Prequelle.
• Megafaun leader Phil Cook’s solo album People Are My Drug.
• Sam Evian’s lush, atmospheric soft rocker You, Forever.
• Joan Of Arc’s reliably deconstructionist return 1984.
• Former Margot & The Nuclear So And So’s frontman Richard Edwards’ solo album Verdugo.
• Mazzy Star’s Still EP.
• Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson’s Apart EP.
• Kitten’s Strange Embrace EP.
• salute’s Condition I EP.