Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love

by Hugh Dignan

Ruban Nielson, the brains behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, has made a weird album with Multi-Love – one that’s weird in a lot of ways. First off, some context: Nielson’s inspiration for Multi-Love was the development of a polyamorous relationship involving his wife and a mutual friend - hence the “multi” of Multi-Love - and the shift in perspective this big mess of love gave him. It came off the back of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s previous album, II – a moody, muted affair, at once quietly soulful and sad. It flirted with psychedelia, pop, funk, and a bunch of other sounds but somehow UMO ended up sounding like a Tame Impala-lite.

Right from the off on Multi-Love’s eponymous opener you get the sense that there’s been a shift in sensibility. It’s a shift that’s all positives - emotionally for Nielson, musically for UMO - and it’s all about embracing being weird, or optimistic, or just yourself. Multi-Love is Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s first album that feels like it knows what it is, and it’s their best too.

It turns out what Unknown Mortal Orchestra are is funk. Or, at least, funk-based. Or, rather, Prince-based. You can’t ignore the Purple One’s influence on Multi-Love, nor that of other purveyors of the kind of poppy, psychedelic-tinged funk that the album moves in – Stevie Wonder, for instance, and, yes, some Tame Impala. Nielson’s vocals work in that same mode of perpetual near-falsetto, and move in dense layers of harmonising, flitting in and out of lyrical intelligibility and working more as another texture to the sound. The only thing that isn’t pure texture is the drums, which are consistently bombastic, in an old-school hip-hop sample kind of way. They drive the album, letting everything else be suspended in permanent airiness.

The centrality of texture makes it an album that, much like II, is intensely mood driven, more about vibes than hooks. This makes it an album that, dense and intricate as it is, almost counter-intuitively works better the less attention you pay to it. I couldn’t tell you what specifically makes songs like Can’t Keep Checking My Phone or Extreme Wealth And Casual Cruelty so great, I’m just reminded that they are every time I hear them. Straining to hear the elements may communicate how great each component is, but the songs as a whole seem to become so much less compelling when they can no longer simply float around as an untethered whole.

The other problem with paying too much attention is the jar of one of the album’s other great weirdnesses. The production of the album is stellar, working in much the same way as their previous releases, but somehow making that sound so much more energised and engaging. The mood and feel of the album is dictated by the production, and, as stated, the album is all mood and feel. But it has a way of tripping over itself. Literally. A skipping, cutting, splicing effect is employed across the album, creating a shifting palette of textures and sounds, making everything seem unpredictable and woozy.

Out of focus, it makes the album all the more interesting, but a concerted listen is a fractured, frustrating one. The effect is much too noticeable and much too frequently used, causing more irritation than it’s worth. It’s a confusing misstep, one that seems to so blatantly bring the experience down you can’t help wondering if maybe your copy is damaged; or maybe all digital versions are damaged, since it’s the same on Spotify; or maybe your speakers are damaged; or your headphones; or your laptop. And then you get distracted and the album’s great again. Well, except for Stage Or Screen. That song is grating in its own way.

It’s perhaps the only song that fails to work on the album, the rest being a work of immaculate construction. Unlike II, which started out interesting and ended as a slog through somnambulant psych-trips, Multi-Love never loses its hook. Even Puzzles, the slow, moodier climax, feels like an earned moment of indulgence, and then reveals itself to not even be that indulgent. It is symptomatic of an album that manages to work, even when it seems like it shouldn’t. This album is great, but, weirdly, fatally flawed. When Necessary Evil talks about being a slightly shitty, bad-to-know guy, but one that the subject of his affections can’t get enough of, your mind takes itself to a meta kind of place. The album may frustrate and confound, but it never fails to attract.