To get into Returnal you must first pass through the portal of "Nil Admirari," the opening track. It's a five-minute barrage of aggressive static, buzzing moans, and alarming whirs. The song is like an arduous test one must withstand so as to be granted entry to the rest of the album. My first inclination was to skip it and just get to the good (not harsh) stuff, but on further listens I've come to regard "Nil Admirari" as an essential track. It grounds the record; the following seven tracks exist in its wake and are enhanced by that context.
Many ambient or drone albums aren't exactly composed as a concisely focused arrangement of eight short tracks. Usually they're either a couple or few extremely long tracks and/or a series of improvisations, either of which can feel wondrous as often as they feel aimless. Returnal, by contrast, clocks in at around forty minutes, it's longest track just over seven minutes, each piece exploring a mood slightly different from the one before.
Comparisons have and will be made to Emeralds' latest, Does It Look Like I'm Here—the two acts are friends, both explore similar tones and textures, and their albums are similarly comprised of a series of short, more or less accessible tracks. For my money Returnal is the more successful of the two. Where Emeralds made a series of discrete tracks, each with their pleasures (and occasional annoyances), Oneohtrix Point Never manages to retain variation from song to song—not really a characteristic of most ambient records!—yet also add up to a greater, more cohesive whole. The escalating cacophony of "Nil Admirari" melts into "Describing Bodies," the album's most serene track, which morphs into the slightly more rhythmic "Stress Waves," then followed by the excellent title track, whose atmosphere is created through bubbling synth and surreal harmonized vocals. "Pelham Island Road" and "Where Does Time Go" both work out looping, dizzying arpeggios. "Ouroboros" is a short but sweet two-minute wave of lush synth drones, a prelude the final track, "Preyouandi," a clattering and dreamlike track that links back to the title track and brings the album full circle.
It's this attention to the ebb and flow of the album, to each track's details and the way they cohere into a larger work, that makes Returnal such a gratifying listen. Most ambient records are by design intended to envelop you, to allow you to drift and get lost in their spaciousness. Returnal somehow manages to do that and hold you at rapt attention.
- Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal