Los Angeles - Following each of their two full-length releases, Unknown Mortal Orchestra gained an uptick in attention from places far outside of their psych-pop niche; with Multi-Love, the band yet again adjusts the formula, eschewing much of the guitar heroics heard on Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II in favor of the hot-and-sweaty sounds of vintage funk and disco. While bandleader Ruban Neilson’s decision to make a substantial-yet-logical sonic shift in the band’s sound while incorporating ever-more-noticeable production techniques would be the central storyline of most third albums, this release has a much larger and vastly more complicated core.
As has been chronicled in various music publications, during the recording and writing period for the band’s third overall full length (second for Jagjaguwar), Neilson and his wife Jenny entered a year-long polyamorous relationship with a mutual friend (who recently had to leave the country due to visa issues). Throughout the nine songs on Multi-Love, it is easy to hear the mix of confusion and ecstasy that is inherent in such a complicated union; there is also a strong sense of sadness and impending doom in each and every complicated lyrical line of this album.
When lead single “Multi-Love” hit the blogosphere in February, it immediately made waves throughout independent music circles. Gone was the Neilson’s trademark guitar virtuosity and the band’s penchant for prog-rock atmosphere; in their place sat an increased emphasis on R&B atmospherics that at times permeated the psych-pop structure in previous releases. While the song was change in direction for the band, many critics considered it to be their single best composition to date.
Lyrically, “Multi-Love” is an extremely heavy song — making it a fitting lead in for one of the decade’s most complicated records. Neilson deeply and candidly delves into the dichotomous nature of his family’s “arrangement,” bending equally between sheer euphoria and panicked regret. Singing to both his wife and his paramour, Neilson cultivates a colorful simile with “Multi-Love/Checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room,” while being much more blunt with “Mama, what have you done to me/I’m half crazy.”
While “Multi-Love” took music fans a bit by surprise when it was released, it is still not the most out-of-left field moment on their third album. That honor is reserved for the “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”, in which Neilson directly channels Tom Waits’ gruff and gritty spirit. Interspersed with bubbling, horn-and-keyboard-driven musical interludes, the verse and choruses feature Neilson’s vocals mixed so low that it sounds as if he delivered them via the cell phone mentioned in the album’s preceding track, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”.
Just when it feels like the song has meandered through the same verse/chorus/interlude structure a few too many times — while also offering up a breezy sax solo — it busts into a rusty, classic psych-rock solo/outro that eventually dissolves into grinding bass and octave chords. It is moments like this that separate Unknown Mortal Orchestra from their more mainstream-oriented peers like Tame Impala and (recently) Toro y Moi.
In other instances, Neilson has arranged songs that fit in perfectly with their popular contemporaries — specifically “The World is Crowded” and “Necessary Evil”. The former has gospel-style vocals adding soulful depth to the lead-in chorus while the later is a little more rock-n-roll oriented, with a creeping guitar line and wigged-out keyboard flourishes. Neilson’s father, a well-respected horn player, contributes his brass talents on both tracks, giving both an upbeat “swing” which they would completely lack otherwise.
The album’s second single is the funky “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, which takes several pages from the disco-playbook before hitting the verbose-yet-infectious chorus lines. After a classic-guitar-led instrumental lead-in that sounds like it was pulled straight from a telenovela, the song loads on the tambourines and flanges, while the bass nails that climbing riff that is synonymous with vintage disco.
“Puzzles” is the sprawling closing track, which cycles through several disparate parts — finger-picked acoustic interludes, a spaced-out vocal verse, and an aggro alt-rock chorus. “Stage and Screen” is one of the catchiest songs on the album, and what Multi-Love would sound like if the band had simply kicked the can down the road and followed in the footsteps of II. “Like Acid Rain” and “UR Life One Night” both showcase Neilson’s appreciation for heavily produced yet still organic-sounding disco-funk pop nuggets — both would sound excellent on an indie-rock summer party playlist.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra are wrapping up a European tour in May and early June, then head to the United States for a nation-wide tour all summer. They will then head back to continental Europe as well as the United Kingdom in September.