Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra—II



Unknown Mortal Orchestra stole the hearts of the blogosphere with its 2011 self-titled freshman album. Critics ogled over the trio’s ability to create sparse, lo-fi psych-pop gems, and for the past two years the band has been riding on the coattails of its successful debut; touring the world and playing the festival circuit.

However, even bands that can get away without releasing new music for a few years must put out a sophomore effort if they want to stay relevant—a daunting task for groups that made their claim to fame with their first record—and UMO’s second full-length, II, may be even more impressive than its acclaimed debut.

The most apparent difference between the two albums is the depth. Though Unknown Mortal Orchestra is filled with catchy lo-fi pop tunes, they don’t seem too profound. These songs are repetitious and infectious, but after a few spins they all seem to meld together.  This is not the case with the tracks that comprise II. Though they still possess the contagious nature of their predecessors, they delve deeper by ways of long instrumental breaks and jaunts in various genres. For the album’s first single, “So Good At Being In Trouble,” UMO takes its generally psychedelic-influenced music and adds a soulful twist (think Al Green) with a prominent, syncopated bass line and vocalist Ruban Nielson belting out lyrics with more force than usual. This song rolls into “One At A time,” a funky track that pays homage to Sly and the Family Stone with a distorted “wah-ing” guitar riff and thumping bass line. 

While the musical arrangements have heightened in their complexities, so have Nielson’s lyrics.  The singer has struggled with addiction, and this sentiment of hopelessness and partying appears throughout the album. Songs like “From The Sun,” “The Opposite of Afternoon,” “Dawn,” and “Faded In The Morning,” illustrate the gradual shift from night to day and what goes along with it in the life of an addict. But one of the most heartbreaking songs on II is its second single, “Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark).” Nielson sings, “I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does / I’d fall to the bottom and I’d hide ‘til the end of time / In that sweet cool darkness,” and portrays how bleak things can become, even under the guise of pop music.

It’s exciting to see UMO push its musical boundaries (and succeed). Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait two more years for another new album.

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