Ruban Nielson has been quietly taking over the world for the last couple of years. For those waiting on him to drop his third album there’s been months of wondering what form his unique brand of low-fi psych-funk would take next. ‘Multi-Love’ is perhaps the natural progression of Unknown Mortal Orchestra‘s first two self-titled albums, albeit with more purpose and cohesion. It’s dance-y, something its predecessors hinted at, but never fully embraced.
The title track and first single remains the darling of the album. It marries Nielson’s love of complex chord progressions and dreamlike lyricism with an improbable groove that is hard to shake. Underneath lies probably his most poignantly emotional narrative, a mystic love story that, as recent interviews have revealed, describes a rollercoaster three-way relationship that stretched his marriage to its brink. It’s hard not to see the rest of the album in this context, whether that was the intention or not. Necessary Evil is Nielson at his most indulgent best. Reminiscent of Bedouin folk, its heavy underwater keyboard riff sounds like it could have come out of the Algerian plains. Drowsy jazz bars fill up the surrounding space for a worthwhile ride into the abyss.
Ur Life One Night is very Prince. That’s a good thing. It’s also quite reminiscent of D’Angelo, with minimalist funk riffs and not much else. Stage or Screen is classic UMO, jumpy, dreamy and drum fill-y, but feels a little shallow among its more fleshed out peers. Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty is layered with personal anecdotes and loose societal critiques. It also features a surprise saxophone solo, courtesy of Neilson’s dad, who apparently was won over by this album after not hiding the fact he wasn’t a fan of earlier UMO. Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, the second single, is the most upbeat of the lot, and hence the most fun. It’s deceptive complexity is an example of what makes UMO such a captivating listen.
For the die hard fans of the band, there’s good and bad news here. It’s obviously nine more tracks of mad genius-cum-careless-excellence courtesy of Portland-resident Nielson. However, given his more focused, more melodic and less rambly approach to the album, it also means less brazen psychedelic soundscapes that stretch themselves well past the four minute mark. Admittedly it was one of the things that made live performances so enthralling, but let’s wait and see how these new songs translate themselves to the stage before making really brash judgement. As a collective project ‘Multi-Love’ stands as a matured and visual album with a depth and emotional transparency we haven’t seen in the previous UMO albums. It’s also well constructed, melodic and warm, hinting at a longevity that is only now coming into view.