It’s been five years since ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ surfaced on bandcamp and three albums later, it isn’t difficult to elucidate why Unknown Mortal Orchestra have garnered such a devout cult following. Modifying their sound more than ever on their latest LP, the band’s endearing oddball production has been elevated to a new level entirely, but crucially the grainy charm, that you fell in love with in 2010, remains at their core. You’re not likely to hear any high-budget accompaniment on a UMO record any time soon, but what is evident on Multi-Love is a pivotal shift from lo-fi to super-fi. The tape cassette aesthetic still remains deeply engrained in the bones of what Ruban Nielson does but on this album he has opened his palette to a selection of far more carefully curated sounds. By becoming increasingly collaborative and receptive to new elements (including tweaking old synthesisers), Nielson has never sounded so self-assured.
The self-titled album opener kicks in with a crunchy organ melody and immediately sets the thematic tone for the record. Acting as a synopsis of his polyamorous problems, Nielson croons about how his priorities have changed. From living a solitary existence, Nielson narrates his new mortal position lodged within a genuinely affectionate three-way relationship. In a swirling interlude propelled by a thumping bass-drum, Nielson feels paralysed in a state of insanity as he cries “momma what have you done to me? I’m half crazy.” Confused, crestfallen and captivated by his newfound multi-love, the track fades to a melancholic haze of delayed guitar – a scream for empathy.
Beginning on a note of self-despair, Nielson dusts himself off from his insomnia-inspired gloom and channels his energy in unique ways. ‘Like Acid Rain’ is an immediate ear worm with faux-modern synth bursts and snappy drum-fills. As these elements neatly align with Nielson’s upbeat vocals, we see the dawning of a fresh sound comfortably in sync with the psychedelic influences that are still deeply woven into the fabric of UMO.
Riding this funk-infused wave, the record’s second single ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ stands tall in the track-list as a glistening highlight. Already ensconced in the band’s setlist as a bonafide hand-clapping encore, the track welcomes the listener in with a sinister fanfare of doom. 18 seconds later, this ominous air is interrupted by a fluorescent burst of disco delight and any sense of unease completely dissipates. Exhibiting an abundance of sonic pleasures, this track unpacks across a wholly unexpected chord structure, while the obligatory cowbell ebulliently clatters. On a personal level, Nielson attempts to abandon his utopian vision of new wave romanticism, simultaneously addressing on a broader scale our mindless obsession with our phones. Grappling with this vacuous habit on record, Neilson succinctly remarked in conversation recently, “I defy anyone to explain what the hell they are looking at on their phone, ever.”
Much more muted in its elegance, ‘Necessary Evil’ lurks with an uncharacteristically simple and repetitive chord sequence before evolving in to something far more intriguing. Sounding like something Mulatu Atsake would record if he nestled himself in a basement in Portland, a subdued organ melody wriggles between Nielson insouciant singing which never seems to try too hard to reel you in. Calmly plodding along with an irresistible groove and gentle brass arrangements supplied by Nielson’s father, the whole package is a bundle of joy, despite what the pessimistic title suggests. Drawing to a close after just nine tracks ‘Puzzles’ is a fitting conclusion to the record. Nielson pleads to America to open up its doors to his lost love who is driven away by an expired visa. Soundtracking his woes is a beautiful concoction of warbling distortion and acoustic calm, which lays the album to rest.
Carefully refining the sounds that have made it on to the record, it is clear to see that Nielson has an incredibly refined ear for subtleties. Subverting the norm with this newly acquired sonic palette, Nielson’s pensive mind also delves deeper on a lyrical level to deliver an unrivalled openness. Even the artwork itself is a photograph taken by his aforementioned multi-lover and it beautifully captures the narrative that is so central to the record. As much as Nielson and his wife would love to welcome her in, their anonymous multi-lover remains out of frame - unable to integrate. Multi-Love plays out as a candid account of atypical intimacy that has proven to be incredibly ripe material for UMO. A relic of a truly unique chapter in his life.
Words: George Hemmati