[14 December 2011]
Since reading Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past this summer, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time consciously and sub-consciously policing the music I listen to for retro-ness. Is there a purpose beyond comfortable familiarity that justifies the “Try a Little Tenderness” sample on “Otis”? What are the implications of evoking an era through meticulous mimicry rather than direct reuse? On Replica, Oneohtrix Point Never creates a sonic mélange composed largely of ‘80s refuse, but it’s so lacking in recognizable reference points that it precludes retro sample-spotting and wistful nostalgia alike; but it’s a fascinating listen in its own right.
Daniel Lopatin, the brains behind Oneohtrix Point Never, is one of the few past-referencing artists that Reynolds lets off the hook in his book, and it’s easy to understand why. Although some of Lopatin’s most popular projects to date are his YouTube-released “echo jams” that isolate and loop sections of ‘80s songs to encourage meditative musical listening (roughly equivalent to the slow food movement), these efforts stymie rather than encourage ravenous online retro consumption. Until now, Oneohtrix Point Never was probably the least postmodern—the least obviously referential—of his projects, despite some inspirational debt to ‘70s electronic artists like Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream. While 2010’s Returnal broadened the Oneohtrix Point Never palette to include noisy album-opener “Nil Admirari”, a title track that veered close enough to a traditional pop song that Antony Hegarty managed a vocal and piano arrangement, and “preyouandi”, which now sounds like a dry run at Replica‘s loop-heavy technique in retrospect, the album was still largely rooted in dense synth pads and shimmery sequencing.
Lopatin has claimed that Replica is his attempt at fusing the repetitive sensibility of his echo jams (which have been released under the names sunsetcorps and Chuck Person) with the long-form synth explorations on previous Oneohtrix Point Never albums. To bring his echo jam sensibility to this material, Lopatin uses an unlikely sample source: a collection of ‘80s commercials. It’s tempting to attribute this choice to Marxist critique, to evocation of a childhood lived in the Reagan era, or to both, but Lopatin’s method renders these interpretations practically irrelevant to anyone going in cold. Lopatin chops pilfered phrases into unidentifiable bits—an exhalation, decontextualized phonemes, piano phrases that never resolve—to the point that it’s impossible to pinpoint where the commercial content ends and his original keyboard and vocal contributions begin, much less determine the original context of the samples. Even situating the sounds of the samples in an era-specific context, as one might with the vintage educational video soundbites on Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children, is all-but-impossible.
This obscuring of context renders Lopatin’s decision to use such a specific set of recordings somewhat puzzling, but it also helps situate Replica as a stand-alone work rather than tying it up in commentary and referentiality. It’s certainly his most sonically adventurous outing to date. Although his core concept necessitates a fair bit of repetitive looping, Lopatin varies his approach with unconventional textures, granting a set of nonsensical vocal snippets and high piano notes the role of honorary rhythm section on “Sleepdealer”, and positioning a Homer Simpson-like “up!” as the hook to the appropriately-titled “Up” (oh, yeah—parts of Replica betray a distinct sense of humor). Lopatin saves some of his best tricks for the tracks least obviously grounded in rhythmic loops. “Andro” stacks soothing chords over a sample collage that brings to mind an emergency scene complete with sirens, beeping medical equipment, and hurried conversation. On the title track, electronic fuzz and an odd melodic lead (instrumentally indeterminate, but oddly evoking jazz guitarist Bill Frisell) flirt with a pretty piano pattern that repeats and breaks down.
In a few instances, Lopatin resolves his compositions a little too predictably. On both “Up” and “Child Soldier,” a composition powered by abrupt, disconcerting samples of children’s exclamations, he simply fades out the unnerving loops and resolves on reassuring synth pads. This device comes across as particularly sloppy and manipulative on an album that often seems designed deliberately to problematicize expression. It should come as little surprise that building electronic compositions out of decontextualized snippets of human voices does not humanize the compositions, but rather does the opposite. We remain aware that voices that once expressed full, coherent thoughts (in the service of TV ads, of course, but this seems beside the point) have been rendered into a sort of inhuman, rhythmically precise glossolalia. In Replica‘s best moments, though, Lopatin takes this inhumanity into account and doesn’t seek to offset the jarring effect with obvious tricks. Instead, he simply lets the disembodied voices become so well-integrated into his compositions that the only human “voice” that matters is his own, expressed in the non-language of others.