Review: Age Of by Oneohtrix Point Never

Oneohtrix Point Never's most collaborative, vocal-heavy and 'normal' work.
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The cover of this album makes it look like a long-lost late-60s’ psychedelic or early-70s’ prog rock album that you’d stumble upon while crate-digging, a shot of the band standing around some unknown alien tech (and I guess that’s basically what a MacBook is). And since the first sound you hear upon starting the record is a MIDI harpsichord, it plays that way too. But underneath the classical ‘sheen’ of the harpsichord counterpointing with the synth as strings, thereis something amiss: the industrial saws and hammers that bubble underneath, eventually breaking through and interrupting the harpsichord’s melody. It’s as evocative an opener as, say, R Plus Seven’s “Boring Angel” which was the most interesting thing Philip Glass has done in decades (not actually Philip Glass).

Anyway, I often think of Oneohtrix Point Never and Arca in the same breath, mostly because they’re the closest we’ve got to a new Aphex Twin in the 2010s (I like Aphex Twin’s recent output just fine…but none of it has been as transcendent as his work in the 1990s). Of course, the two are interested in different languages, so to speak: nostalgia versus horror; digital versus the body; Music Has the Right to Children versus Geodaddi, if you catch my drift (chances are, if you’re reading a review of Oneohtrix Point Never’s music on the internet, you do catch my drift.) And the comparisons are strengthened with the release of Oneohtrix Point Never’s latest, which features the heavy use of Daniel Lopatin’s vocals. Arca’s self-titled, released last year, also featured his own vocals, and the new-found focus on singing and song has led to both works being divisive and ultimately underrated by ardent and cynical fans.

Age Of also marks another difference in Lopatin’s discography: it’s his most collaborative work yet. James Blake mixes and co-produces (whose last album, 2016’s The Colour in Anything, was his own most collaborative album), while Loptain brings in Anohni on vocals (whom he worked with previously on Hopelessness, helping Anohni craft some of her most interesting songs yet), Prurient (also on vocals), Eli Keszler (drums) and Kelsey Lu (keyboards).

The title track is followed up by the ballad - yes, a ballad - “Babylon,” and the heavily-digitized vocals have garnered comparisons to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, the album where Justin Vernon dropped his folk origins and went full glitch-pop inspired by his work with artists like Kanye West (“10 (Death Breast)” cops the momentum of “Black Skinhead”), Colin Stetson and James Blake. (22, A Million was released the same year as the aforementioned Hopelessness which is when Anohni herself changed lanes, which is interesting because both Anohni and Justin Vernon, who went to the same school for soul, so to speak, also broke through around the same time as one another: Anohni in 2005 and Bon Iver in 2007.) “Babylon” features two key moments for me, the first at the 1:33 mark where Prurient’s demonic vocals interrupt Oneohtrix Point Never’s verse, blasting out “JUST GO ON” like a command. The second is during the bridge, where the vocals go “It’s not that I don’t get it / I really think I do” over dulcet arpeggios that wouldn’t have been out of place on an old blue-eyed soul song if not for the exaggerated computerized vocals.

Broadly speaking, the attempt to bridge the gulf between pop song and OPN’s experimental tendencies isn’t likely to win him any new fans in the realm of the former because there’s still deliberate push-back, most notably in “Babylon”’s abrupt ending (perhaps the easiest trick in the book to reject traditional pop songwriting), which is repeated elsewhere on closer “Last Known Image of a Song,” while miniature “Manifold” similarly brings in a new motif in the last twenty seconds but doesn’t bother expanding on it. (“Manifold”’s opening section, before it turns into a “piano ballad,” makes me think of the goofery of certain Canterbury scene acts, making it pair well with the proggish feel of the opener/cover. It’s my favorite of the three short ones here, which includes the machine-hymn of “Same.”)

Curiously, James Blake - easily the most interesting vocalist working here, certainly with much more emotional depth and physical range than Lopatin’s - doesn’t contribute vocals. And ultimately, I had the same issue with Lopatin’s singing as I did Arca’s ‘ghost child’ vocals on his self-titled, which is to say that both grow old over the course of the album, and that’s true here even when placed over the Garden of Delete-ish “The Station” or the R&B ballad-style finger-snaps of “Black Snow.” It doesn’t help that texturally, Lopatin’s less interesting than Arca’s. So perhaps expectedly, it’s the instrumentals that are more interesting: the extended ride-out on “Black Snow” (the most ‘normal’ section of the album); how the harpsichord sounds like a koto on “RayCats,” giving the track a more Eastern feel; the sonar pings during the ‘verses’ of “Still Stuff That Doesn’t Happen.” “Toys 2” gets a lot of attention as well, particularly since Lopatin’s called it out as “my proof of concept for how I would score a Pixar film" but the opening synth melody sounds like a popular Celine Dion tune.

Oh yeah: there’s an alternate version of the album floating out there with a bonus track, “Trance 1,” that feels like an attempt at recreating R Plus Seven’s “Chrome Country” without the vocals. It’s not worth going out of your way for.

All told, Oneohtrix Point Never’s latest album is good, but it’s also his worst ‘proper’ album since his critical breakthrough. In attempting (but not fully committing to) his most accessible release, Age Of doesn’t feel like it’ll go down well with any particular audience, and that might be reason for its conspicuous absence from most year-end lists despite OPN being a critical darling for some time now.