Brooklyn’s Daniel Lopatin makes tried and tested emotive music with plenty of precedent. Tangerine Dream is the most frequently cited, but you could equally choose any number of works by Vangelis or Jean Michel Jarre or Aphex Twin‘s Select Ambient Works albums. The title track does indeed sound like an out-take from The Knife, as commentators have already remarked. But the overriding similarity is with the synth interludes on concept albums by Marillion, Clannad or even Christian celtic prog-rockers Iona.
These are the plush synthesizer timbres of a thirty-something’s childhood processed through plenty of reverb and delay, audio MSG that never fails to evoke a sense of yearning, loss and memory. Every second of every minute brings another easy signifier of nostalgia. It’s the sound of hiding behind C64 wire frames from a watchful Sentinel, of Nausicaa gliding in clear blue skies over insect colonies and fungal forests, of every Michael Mann film reaching its climax simultaneously. Lopatin’s music hits all its emotional marks so effortlessly and recreates those contexts with such laser-guided precision because that’s precisely what his sources and influences have already achieved, in some cases three decades ago.
Perhaps noise kids need their own version of a Tears for Fears tribute act or Reflex retro theme bars. This fits the bill admirably, and if this review sounds negative then please understand that it isn’t. Using the language of an NLP practitioner who never escaped from a 1980s Tony Robbins seminar, Returnal works perfectly. It is neither wrong nor broken. It just keeps doing what its forefathers did and keeps getting what they’ve already got. If you’re in your thirties and want to revisit your Misplaced Childhood then Returnal comes with a three year warranty, guaranteed to deliver.
No, the problem with Hypnagogic Pop is rarely the music. The problem is the threadbare supporting narrative woven by music critics. The fact is that pop music from the 1980s does not need to be reclaimed for anyone besides the music journalists who have invested too much time and effort distancing themselves from it. The rest of us don’t need additional reverb to appreciate what we already knew we loved. Chart pop from 80s had a sense of space, of isolation and dislocation that few artists are capable of evoking today. It was the inevitable inverse of showbiz sheen, of creating a sound with too polished and perfect a surface. The music became an infallible, unforgiving mirror that drew attention to the fragility and vulnerability of both its creator and audience. It needs neither deconstruction nor rehabilitation. These qualities were already present to anyone save the most inattentive listener.
There are few artists who are capable of saying with simple, direct and desolate honesty, that life is a mystery and that everyone must stand alone. Oneohtrix Point Never is amongst them, but only because he knows better than to reinvent the wheel.