You can be excused for thinking, upon putting on Returnal, the latest by Boston’s Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never, that you’ve gotten a hold of the wrong album. “Nil Admirari” opens the album with a primal scream and wailing feedback that continues to flutter, seize, and tantrum for five minutes. “Perhaps the record label Editions Mego swapped this disc with that Prurient LP it put out a few years back”, you might think. “Nil Admirari” hardly resembles the pristinely erected sound sculptures for which Lopatin has come to be known. Yet by track two, you’ve barely noticed that Lopatin has swapped the power noise for its opposite: waves of patient, oceanic, drone stasis. That cut,“Describing Bodies”, doesn’t function so much as a juxtaposition, as a lingering numbness or a pleasant tinnitus resulting from the aftershocks of the first track. Next in the succession is “Stress Waves”, which is a woozy attempt at recovery. Lopatin’s infamous arpeggios struggle to work their way back into the mix, but sound wounded, drunk, or short-circuited. This is not the strobing pulse of dance stripped of its 808s, as was the case on much of the previous release, Rifts, this is another kind of storytelling altogether.
Thoughtfully conceived transitions like the ones described above make Returnal far more of a coherent album than Oneohtrix Point Never’s prior works. Lopatin has always excelled at making his pieces laconic and precise, which is perhaps why they’ve been so palatable to a larger indie audience. Yet, Returnal proves that he can work his way around a long form record as well. The title seems to be a portmanteau of “return” and “eternal”, suggesting a perpetual recycling and endless recurrence. One track is titled “Where Does Time Go?” as opposed to “Where Does The Time Go?”. This minor distinction means the question is not about pondering the acceleration of one’s life, but questioning the physical absence of moments after they happen, their limited temporal existence and ongoing arrivals and departures.
The title track, meanwhile, degrades its alien voice by simultaneously pitch-bending itself both up and down the register, creating false harmonies whose lyrics remain just out of reach as a result. It seems Oneohtrix Point Never seeks to alienate the pop song so that we don’t keep returning to the same thing eternally. As usual, one of music’s most exciting artists has put out a challenging, unexpected, and brain-melting record.