While legions of artists show fidelity to psychedelia’s roots, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has always shared the rare quality that makes the genre’s legends vital, a constant need for exploration. Last year, frontman and multi-instrumentalist Ruban Nielson descended into his home studio in a Portland basement to chart out where’s he traveled since his last set of unhinged psych-soul ballads. He discovered that the best way for him to move forward would be to look back. Where Nielson addressed the pain of being alone on II, Multi-Love takes on the complications of being together.
Nielson wrote the surrealistic II during an isolated period on the road, a walkabout throughout disillusionment and darkness when he pushed away. The more upbeat Multi-Love charts a different type of catharsis and reflects on relationships.
“The writing on this album was more abstract, riddles that slightly disrupt the flow,” he says. “A good lyric was something that didn’t quite sit right. I don’t want to be sad or nostalgic about these relationships. I want to be more celebratory. It’s a feeling and desire that just came from time, being further away from it all. It was never going to be simple. I’m a bit wild, and was never going to just be normal.”
The threads of our past never unravel, they hover like invisible webs, occasionally glistening due to a sly angle of the sun. On Multi-Love, Nielson walks right into this intoxicating and inviting cloud, enveloped by the haze of memory and the fog of the past: longing, loss, wanting to be tied up but not tied down. The title track plots out the geometry of desire when three people align. Lyrics such as “actor, but never for stage and screen” reference past affairs that can never be understood. The languid “The World is Crowded” speaks to an addictive obsession. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” with an opening serenade of intertwined trumpet and guitar, struts and sings, neon synths and bouncing bass telling of an airy, humid feeling pressing against your temples. Nielson isn’t animated by pain but the mysteries that unravel from the spark of attraction.
Beyond exploring universal feelings of attachment, Nielson also reconstructed his music-making process, expanding his horizons and abilities. The guitar virtuoso engrossed himself in synthesizers and production techniques, rediscovering a sense of craft and creation. Synapses fired as new musical connections were mapped out. In a basement space with cords snaking across the floor, connecting banks of keyboards and reams of new ideas, he literally rewired instruments and learned the joy of creating something out of nothing. His vocals reach new heights, especially on the soaring title track. The new psychedelic canvas moves past citing references to creating his own narrative.
“It felt good to be rebelling against the typical view of what an artist is today, a curator,” he says. “Our society wants to curate and consume. I wanted to be the guy behind the scenes, to demonstrate multiple skills and make it transparent. Not creating this overblown idea of a rock star or anything like that. It’s more about being someone who makes things happen in concrete ways. Building old synthesizers and bringing them back to life, creating sounds that aren’t quite like anyone else’s. I think that’s much more subversive.”
It’s psychedelia that doesn’t ignore the last 40 years of music, pushing boundaries and making a quiet argument against the idea that every frontier has been explored. Multi-Love offers a flowing, cohesive view of Nielson’s expanded vision. Jagged, sculpted beats and cosmic synthesizers (especially on the weightless outro of “Stage or Screen”) add dimension to a genre supposedly known for its expansive creativity. During the making of his last album, Nielson jokingly recorded a song called “Two Generations of Excess” with an eight-minute guitar solo, which was never included. The sheer sonic variety on Multi-Love suggests he’s still feeling creative and restless.
“I didn’t want to subscribe to the idea that synths are futuristic and guitars are old-fashioned,” he says. “It’s not about being a purist.”
In many ways, the album is Nielson’s reckoning with and reinterpretation of the promise of the ‘60s. Have the ideals from that period of searching optimism, and the corresponding progress towards more fulfilling relationships and a more just society, truly been been met, or as Nielson believes, are we all still searching? Viewed through the prism of today’s progress (or lack thereof), Multi-Love speaks to a more complicated and tricky view of love, enlightenment and racial harmony. “Puzzles” literally begins with what sounds like windows shattering and someone sweeping up the pieces of broken glass, an indictment of recent racial tension in Ferguson and elsewhere that show a country off course.
“I was listening a lot to Stand by Sly and the Family Stone, obsessing over the lyrics of this multi-racial band and all these different people coming together to make music” says Nielson. “I thought we were getting better. We’ve had these better ideas of ourselves for decades, but how much have things really changed?”
This was also a family affair. His brother, a drummer and former bandmate in Flying Nun punk band The Mint Chicks, as well as his father, a trumpet player who had set a hedonistic example during his childhood, make guest appearances. The song “Necessary Evil” (Transform into the animal you need to / Fly from a destiny infested with chemicals) references Nielson’s shared affinity for a hard-partying lifestyle with his father.
Revisiting old relationships and loves, reconnecting with family, reinventing your artistic process: what might seem like a series of painful processes liberated Nielson. It’s tricky raw material to fashion into something more buoyant and illuminating. He just hopes the searching and reevaluating help others take stock of their own connections and achieve catharsis.
“I’m glad I had this opportunity, and if I made someone’s life easier with the album, that’s the closest reason that exists for making art that I’ve been able to find,” he says.
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