Seeing Unknown Mortal Orchestra live and hearing them on record are two remarkably different experiences. The Portland-via-New Zealand psych rock band dealt lo-fi pop on their first two albums, 2011’s self-titled and 2013’s II, but live, they tumble around in the dirt, extending themselves into the territory of The Grateful Dead and Phish where closing stanzas quadruple in length. Both versions of their sound have attracted a following, the former among critics and the latter among tie-dye-everything bros. That combination led to an assumption that third album Multi-Love would better spotlight the band’s 10-minute jams. Frontman Ruban Nielson, contrarian that he is, did the opposite.
Multi-Love is a sanguine adventure into utopian disco driven by slabs of funk. Nielson kept busy with ’70s sounds before, but while he used to mirror Frank Zappa, he now captures the aura of Prince and early Queen. The change works.
When Jagjaguwar gave him the budget for Multi-Love, Nielson almost nabbed a producer to take the work off his hands. Ultimately, he decided to write, engineer, and produce it himself, which meant he had money to spare. The band’s Instagram feed from the last two years has been littered with enough retro gear and hand-built synths to make audiophiles freak. They’re present in the giddy refrain of “Like Acid Rain” and the elasticity of “Ur Life One Night”. By glossing a super-fi texture over old-school sounds, like Daft Punk on Random Access Memories, UMO uses these vintage innards to boost their disco appeal. In a way, they’re reverting to their jam roots. Every guitar turns sound into electricity, fuzz pedals crackle, and synthesizers run off light.
That musical optimism is mirrored in the album’s meat. On II, Nielson was caught up in unending self-deprecation, an inescapable theme beginning with the album’s first lyric: “Isolation can put a gun in your hand.” His insomnia minimized the time he could spend with his children and taunted him with the fear of becoming a negligent father. Love is the driving force again on this album, but it shows its flip side: confusion. Multi-Love is Nielson’s artistic approach to a fresh-faced love triangle and the complications that come with it.
On the title track, he tells of his relationships trashing his heart like a hotel room, both loves fighting for attention in a tossup too tough to choose between. In an interview with Pitchfork, Nielson explained the toils of his first polyamorous relationship. His wife, Jenny, urged the other woman to stay with them and their children for a while, redefining what it means to be a family unit. “Think about the two most serious relationships in your life so far, and then experiencing them simultaneously,” he said. “It makes you wonder: How much can a human being deal with emotionally?”
That identity fracture pulses through the whole record. As handclaps and old synths dance through “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, Nielson outlines his constant need for contact via technology. The walking bass and sparse funk guitar strums open the floor for dancing, but his processed voice gets tangled in its own words. On “Necessary Evil”, he balances a Jimi Hendrix groove with a thick smog of synths, guiding the two along with warm horns. Even the flushing “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty” is carefully layered so an unexpected, rusty guitar solo can be sneaked in. Nielson has become a self-taught arranger thanks to his dizzied heart.
As easy as it is for Nielson to write pop songs (the initial hook of “Stage or Screen” recalls Maroon 5’s “This Love”), he’s ditched that sleeping state for a field of unread love letters and marriage footnotes. Taking on a new genre calls for an appreciation of its predecessors and present-day baton holders. The transition leaves no marks other than closing number “Puzzles”. Glass smashes while cars speed in the foreground, eventually subsiding when an acoustic guitar plods along with a heavy heart. Just as strings begin to swell, they’re brushed aside by the same sweep that ushers in the album’s bold ’70s funk. This is bravery in the face of unexplored romantic danger.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra continues onward with a sound that’s still uniquely its own by building old synthesizers and amping up production values, coining kaleidoscopic new wave romanticism in the process. By deconstructing traditional geometries of desire, they’ve made their most fully realized album yet. Best of all, Nielson sounds happy again. The further into your marriage you travel, the harder love raps at your door. But, greeting it with open arms ushers in something illogical, vivacious, and new — a combination audaciously explored on Multi-Love.
Essential Tracks: “Multi-Love”, “Puzzles”, and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”