Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Oneohtrix Point Never Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Before Oneohtrix Point Never, there was Magic Oneohtrix Point Never. Daniel Lopatin’s original name for his project was derived from a mishearing of a radio station jingle that he grew up with in his Massachusetts hometown. He would end up simplifying the name, but never his sound. For the last decade, Lopatin has channeled his restless creative energy into making Oneohtrix Point Never a consistent source of entrancingly odd and always challenging music. And for his latest album, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, he’s returned to the very beginning.

Though he hasn’t been pushing it as a quarantine album, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is indeed one, put together as spring turned to summer this year. And it’s no wonder that being stuck in a room for an extended period of time would bring on the compulsion to rifle through his own past in the way that Lopatin is used to doing with pop culture’s esoterica. In many ways, the album feels like a reflection of his own legacy, a self-referential summation that sounds like all the eras of OPN compressed into one.

In the last few years, Lopatin has gravitated toward slightly more traditional song structures. His most recent album, Age Of, was also his most accessible yet. It was still plenty out-there, but it signaled a shift away from the more chaotic vision of his earliest work; those urges seemed mostly satisfied by Lopatin’s pulse-pounding soundtracks for the Safdie brothers. But Magic Oneohtrix Point Never heads back to the intangible. It marries the internet-wormhole experimentalism of Lopatin’s roots, when he was making righteous zone-out music on Rifts and Replica and R Plus Seven, with the more epically constructed feel of Garden Of Delete and Age Of.

To accomplish this melding of his own influences, Lopatin turned to his initial inspiration: the radio station. He structured Magic Oneohtrix Point Never to mimic the experience of listening to the radio from morning to night. He focused on when old-timey stations would change their format in the middle of the day, switch genres in an effort to capitalize on a different listener base. It’s similar to his other albums in that he clearly delights in the weird transitions that can be made between disparate sounds, but it’s different in that he has a conceptual reason for the album’s lack of cohesion. Magic is separated into suites — subtitled Drive Time, Midday, etc. — that are broken up by cross-talk interstitials, which turn genial DJ voices into ominous warnings. They mostly sneer at the idea of “background music” or “elevator music” — sounds that serve a utilitarian function, much like the radio often does.

Despite a programmer’s best intentions, the radio is often just the background noise for someone’s life, the hum of existence as one makes their way to pick up groceries or dawdle around the house. But Lopatin is more interested in the effects that this constant noise has on one’s subconscious and what happens when what’s on the radio suddenly changes. He finds beauty in that sort of disorientation. On one of the “Cross Talk” segments, a warped voice whines: “Somehow the music we all grew up listening to doesn’t relate to our adult reality and our new dreams. The music we grew up with doesn’t speak for us.” Oneohtrix Point Never has always been about the ways in which music and memory coalesce; Magic makes that connection more concrete.

Lopatin’s fixation with the mechanics of the radio is interesting considering that OPN came up in a largely post-radio music climate. He first made waves on the blog scene by taking old sounds and recontextualizing them into something new. By the time he came around, most people had already moved on to being able to play whatever music they wanted whenever they wanted. Radio, in that sense, is just another dying format for Lopatin to mine. But Lopatin is interested in that lack of choice, and maybe even in the metaphysical possibilities that radio presents: an endless loop of music sent out through invisible airwaves that surround us whether we’re aware of them or not. Not a bad analogy for the all-encompassing experience of listening to an OPN album.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never sounds like it’s constantly stuck between the dials. It’s fractured by design, but never anything less than compelling. Snippets of songs and samples filter in through an exceedingly pretty backdrop. It’s his most all-over-the-place album, but it’s also his smoothest. Lopatin has spent a decade refining his skills as a producer, and he’s able to rein in his music in a disorganized manner that feels relatively ordered. The aforementioned day-to-night cycle also helps with that, providing Lopatin some framework with which to delineate his ideas.

Also seemingly of some influence is the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, who is credited as the album’s co-executive producer and seems to have acted as a sounding board for Lopatin to bounce ideas off of. Their collaboration began a couple years ago, after Tesfaye heard OPN’s score for Good Time, and they started working together soon after. Lopatin produced a handful of tracks for the Weeknd’s latest album After Hours, and perhaps Tesfaye’s pop sensibilities helped make Magic Oneohtrix Point Never as polished as it is.

He’s a curious collaborator for Lopatin to land on, in that he came up around the same time as OPN but ended up with quite different results. But the early run of Weeknd mixtapes were not all that far removed from what Lopatin was doing — Beach House samples and Michael Jackson covers were Tesfaye’s way of marrying all of what he was listening to in the same way that Replica utilized half-remembered television ads from Lopatin’s youth. Both were interested in nostalgia, and though some of their touchpoints varied, their intention was the same. While the Weeknd went on to become a pop star and Oneohtrix Point Never went a different route, them meeting up in the same place creatively in 2020 feels thematically appropriate.

“No Nightmares,” the one song that Tesfaye lends his voice to on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, is a pretty good confluence of their two aesthetics. Lopatin has indicated that it was inspired by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s corny 1985 duet “Separate Lives,” one of those pieces of cultural ephemera probably best left in the past that Lopatin has chosen to re-evaluate. The result is dreamy and surprisingly earnest and slips through your fingers as soon as it’s gone.

That sense of ephemerality is threaded through Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, presumably by design. Everything bleeds into each other, and some of the individual moments are a bit hard to pick out. It’s like listening to the radio, in that it’s all a bunch of white noise until some song hits that changes your life. Lopatin has a couple of them on Magic, big pop moments that offer much-needed clarity. “Long Road Home” is one. A collaboration with Caroline Polachek, it taps into the operatic splendor of her solo album Pang, pinprick strings that add up to an undeniable groove. “Even my dreams kissed in digital gloss/ It’s my reality,” Polachek and Lopatin sing as their voices melt into each other. “I don’t know why I don’t wanna transform/ Taking the long road home.” Another is “I Don’t Love Me Anymore,” perhaps one of OPN’s finest accomplishments, a frantic jolt of energy that sounds like a pop-punk song bouncing off a couple satellites.

So much of Magic is about zipping between sounds that those kind of songs stand out, but taken as a whole the album is pretty staggering, like if the Avalanches came up in the time of Altered Zones. It gets a little more ponderous and dour as it transitions into the evening hours. Lopatin’s idea of a good night isn’t raging at a club; instead, it sounds more like YouTube K-holes in a room lit up by nothing but a laptop screen. One highlight there is the Arca-featuring “Shifting,” a downright nasty throb of spooky noise. But it’s odd how comforting the album is to listen to despite, or maybe because, of how scattered it sounds. Though Lopatin never rests on any idea for too long, he channels the new age influences of his past music into something that tries to make order of a disordered world.

“On a therapeutic level, I’ve always enjoyed the comfort of listening to the radio, and of listening to people have inane discussions on podcasts,” Lopatin said in a recent interview. “It’s a way to have a connection to the outside world. I’m an introvert, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want and desire connection.” Magic sounds like a constant conversation with himself moderated by radio, a one-sided feedback loop that nonetheless feels interactive. Music is the same way — we’re not talking to the creator, but sometimes it feels like we might be. On Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, we get to hear Lopatin making connections and pointing out recurring patterns in his own work throughout a decade of making music. It’s pretty thrilling for a trip down memory lane.

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is out 10/30 via Warp. Pre-order it here.

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