Album of the Week: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘Multi-Love’

27.05.15

‘Multi-Love’ could be seen as Ruban Nielson’s midlife crisis – where some people buy Porsches or take up a hobbies left behind in their youth, last year Nielson began a polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman. 

Since his last album ‘II’, Nielson has been pushed to the brink, recently telling Dummy that the group spent years discovering “what a rock band should be about”. Despite the album’s background and the personal experiences, ‘Multi-Love’ draws a line between his recent past and the future. It’s hard to ignore the context the album was recorded in; on the title-track, Nielson pleas for guidance and aches for answers, whirling inside a maelstrom of synthesisers, with all the right resonation and frequencies pointing to a sense of despair. Lyrically speaking, ‘Multi-Love’ is filled with abstract riddles and (unanswered) questions shaped by recent experiences.

Shunning the themes of isolation and enhancing the sound of previous albums, ‘Multi-Love’, in Nielson’s words, “plays against that idea of manly, white guy rock music”, but the stylistic overlap is still there. It excels at recontextualising Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s post-1967 influences into something more voluminous; ‘I’ and ‘II’ left room to fill in the blanks, leaving you wondering how Unknown Mortal Orchestra would sound with a bigger production budget. There’s a colourful distinction between ‘Multi-Love’ and its predecessors, previewed by the bright pink light that reigns the album cover.

The primary sonic focus of ‘Multi-Love’ relate to the R&B influence that is heard immediately; ‘I’ and ‘II’  was often overshadowed by the lyrical themes and production methods, but right from the off, Nielson has integrated them smoothly and continuously. Like Acid Rain possesses a soulful plasticity that seems ripe for a live sing-a-long, characterised by the sunshine refrain of la la las in the chorus. Ur Life One Night’s choppy guitars spotlight elements of disco – guitar work which feeds into the following track, Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, a busy, danceable hit that sounds as though it could have been recorded in a jungle. Following the cinematic register of horns and brass, it seems fitting that the opening words (Aurora Borealis) preview the coming musical spectacle; an electric phenomenon endowed with a repetitive beat, click-clack percussion, gliding bass licks, and Latin guitar textures.

Apart from the album’s subject matter, an outlay on new equipment and gadgets is what gives ‘Multi-Love’ its distinction from past work. Tapping into the high point of recording technology in the late-'70s, the #superfi production is so central to the album’s textures. The World Is Crowded’s soulful swing possibly would have been overlooked in the past, while the radiant Stage or Screen would have sounded too bright. ‘Multi-Love’s biggest accomplishment is retaining an aesthetic design while painting the borders luminously to downplay the complexities of romance and desire.

Darkness is no stranger to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s day-glo fusion-pop; Puzzles begins with mellow guitars before bursting into a violent blast of crunching riffs. America opened your doors, he recounts, terminating the album with a communicant that will see no response, before howling I don’t want to solve your puzzles anymore – it’s difficult to think of anyone else this is directed at. Echoing heavyweight funk, self-doubt creeps in again on Necessary Evil, as Nielson works through the vocal scales to tell his wife that loving him is a burden. The six-minute Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty longs for a utopian world free of materialistic goals and unkindness, concluding with a white-hot surge of energy. It’s not a novel wish, more a murmur after putting down the phone on the previous track.

Heartbreak is a ubiquitous theme on rock albums, but polyamory and its effect on your work is something exclusive to ‘Multi-Love’. The exemplification of that experience is crucial to making it one of the most unique records of recent years. At the centre of ‘Multi-Love’ is Nielson, a middle-aged storyteller peering forward at the prospect of the world’s societal rules, confused by ardor, and crafting some hope from the comforts and experiences of the past. At once new and old, the album marks a crossroad not only for its creator, but for the heavy hearted romantics all over. Only a reply could change 'Multi-Love's singularity. 

9/10

Jagjaguwar released 'Multi-Love' on May 25th 2015 (buy).