Unknown Mortal Orchestra- Multi Love
The trajectory of Ruban Nielsen's career has never been predictable. After becoming completely disenchanted with the record industry when he was playing in the punk band The Mint Chicks, Ruban was really close to leaving music in his rearview mirror. While working as an illustrator for Jacob Portrait's brother, he was working on a self-recorded project that would eventually turn into UMO's self-titled debut record, despite his feelings that no one would be interested in hearing a bunch of guitar solos. Then, after a year of touring left him feeling alienated and desperate, he poured these feelings into the band's second record II, and toured the globe for another world tour.
Within the past year, his polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman has provided the lyrical inspiration for the band's soon to be released third record entitled Multi-Love. Even though the official street date for Multi-Love is May 26, the accolades have already been pouring in from news sources like Pitchfork and Spin, touting it as UMO's best, most accomplished record to date.
When I first heard that UMO had started working on a new record, I was hoping for a better-produced record that was reminiscent of their live show with Ruban's extended guitar solos being pushed to the forefront of the mix alongside the stellar rhythm section of Jacob Portrait and Riley Geare. Instead, Ruban has opted to take this record in the opposite direction, mostly eschewing guitar solos and the band's trademark psychedelic sound for a seemingly more conventional synth-pop sound with elements of jazz, soul and disco.
I have to admit that it took me several listens to wrap my head around this album, but I'm finally starting to appreciate the dedication that it must have taken to achieve the various sounds that make up the record. While the album was taken to another studio to be mastered, it's astonishing that the bulk of the recording process was completed in Ruban's in-house basement studio. You would be hard-pressed to find another album with this level of sonic clarity whose recording took place in the confines of a home studio. This clearly speaks to Ruban's talent as a musician and producer to be able to craft a record with exceptional sound quality without resorting to a big-name producer or professional sound studio.
The opening track "Multi-Love" was the first single that was leaked to the public back in February. Along with the news of the new album coming in May, this was the public's first taste of what to expect from the new record. Essentially "Multi-love" is an introduction to the new sound that Ruban is going for on the record, a heavily processed, technicolor version of UMO with the vocals way up-front, and a symphony of synthesizers and digitized handclaps serving as the backdrop. This directly leads into "Like Acid Rain", a song that travels back in time to the mid 80's with a sound reminiscent of soul groups like New Edition and Ready For the World, with the slightest tinge of Sly and the Family Stone. It's a short burst of a track whose candy-coated melodies explode with so much energy and enthusiasm that you will be humming along to it for days. Then comes "Ur Life One Night", the song that best exemplifies the UMO sound: complex vocal patterns, upbeat drumming, an infectious sing-along chorus and a compact guitar solo. Next, is the second single released from the album called "Can't Keep Checking My Phone". This is the most overtly pop song in UMO's catalog thus far, and with it's pop-disco sound it wouldn't surprise me in the least bit if it was chosen as the music for the latest Verizon commercial, or as the soundtrack for the latest mainstream, coming-of-age movie.
From here, things get really interesting though. "Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty" features a lightly-strummed acoustic guitar melody with an array of synthesized squiggles that come in and out of the mix. For the most part, Ruban's vocals are distorted beyond comprehension, but with lyrics that are as poignant as "If we were just strangers, then we'd fall in love again- Abandon extreme wealth and casual cruelty", you can't help but be moved by the thoughtfulness. Then, a spacy sax solo comes out of nowhere, and takes the song to another level that you didn't think was possible. Immediately following this solo, all of the music drops out except for the vocals, bass and light drumming, putting the focus on the vocals one last time before the bottom drops out into the guitar freakout section of the song. It really is a phenomenal song that gets better on each successive listen.
The thick bass line is the first thing we hear on "The World Is Crowded", and while it is clearly influenced by D'Angelo and Prince, the song manages to retain it's own identity. It's also the song that features the most soulful vocals from Ruban, and you can actually understand some of the lyrics (Here's hoping that the lyrics will be included with the album). "Stage or Screen" is most reminiscent of UMO's earlier records with extensive phasing on the drums, and twisty melodies that won't leave your mind, until the last minute where it suddenly switches the tempo with a mellow synth outro. On "Necessary Evil", we are treated to a soulful song with bubbly saxophone, eerie keyboards and a brief guitar interlude that is a welcome return to the sound of II.
The closing track "Puzzles" is aptly titled as it's difficult to ascertain how each part of the song fits together, but somehow it all works. Starting off with the sound of glass breaking amidst ominous synths for the first minute of the song, it slowly segues into a beautiful acoustic melody with shuffling drums and what sounds to me like a cello. Then, a distorted synthesizer or guitar line comes out of nowhere, and thus begins the next part of this song. After the first verse of the song, it goes into an infectious bridge with fantastic drum fills, heavy on the hi-hat. An aggressive guitar riff begins to form right as Ruban sings the chorus in multiple overdubbed voices "I don't want to solve your puzzles anymore". After revisiting the first verse, bridge and chorus, the song switches on a dime to a mellow guitar outro that closes the album on a perfect note.
On Multi-Love, UMO have managed to both exceed and confound expectations. While I would have liked to hear a couple more tracks with extended guitar solos, there will always be the live shows to fulfill this need. Even though the world is crowded, there is plenty of space for an orchestra of unknown mortals, but they won't continue to be unknown with music of this caliber.
UMO- Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty and Ur Life One Night