Ruban Nielson’s one-man-band for-the-studio/turned-trio-live project Unknown Mortal Orchestra has had an enviable career, release-wise; each one perfectly building on the previous – the first album the surprise re-contextualisation of Nielson’s talents for anyone who knew his skills and place in creating the music of The Mint Chicks, and then sequel album, II, expanded the palette. Here, with Multi-Love, the third record and first to be given/giving a ‘real’ title (the first eponymous, the second a Roman numeral) it feels like the swirls and colours of the second album applied to songs that have the wiggle and bounce of the first; there’s the immediacy and accessibility of the debut record with the intensity and extra cleverness of the second. There’s the intimacy of…well, well okay, here we go…
Multi-Love comes to us in full basement technicolour via the Nielson’s recent marriage enhancement; a story of polyamorous – or “Multi-Love” – living…
Like most fantastic details it feels a bit like 80% of a true story, but in these social media oversharing days 80% is more than good enough. And so we have a psychedelic love album that – in the most psychedelic of ways – is the happiest-sounding heartbreak album you might ever hear, and if you wanted to stop, for even a second, to accuse Neilson of channelling a part-fictionalised grief into his lyrics, of exacerbating something “nearly true/true enough”, there’s always the bonus that his drippy-delivery and opaque lyrics make it entirely possible for you to love this album without even considering the overriding theme; the guardian angel-like lyrical muse of this marriage’s well-tuned, if temporary, third wheel.
So that’s there really – those lyrics – as a sort of extra-for-experts, something that you might hear straight away, but can return to and unpack however/whenever you like. What absolutely is there straight away – and what continues to sell this album – is the textural feel of the vocals. And the boho-chic saturated palette and this wonderful version of the best of indie inventiveness playfully coiling itself around a type of funk music that makes you wish – either – that Prince followed up Musicology’s “alleged” return to form with something in the shape of Cody ChesnuTT’s Headphone Masterpiece, or that Cody kept on with his Headphone Masterpiece imperfect idealism rather than going too gospel-funk clever. Maybe Cody could have covered some early Prince in that Headphone style. Or taken his singing – and lyrical approach – to Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack for A Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants.
For that’s what’s going on here, UMO’s Songs In The Three(some) of Life and it seems to encapsulate a 21st Century digitally-shaped loneliness via the headphone mastering of pieces. Ennui encapsulated, the heartbreak of strange desire, the realisation that what you had that made you happy is now maybe not enough. Yes, these are the modern blues of this world.
Nielson has, previously, been a little Conan Mockasin, a little Tame Impala (Conan in the basement/bedroom, Impala when rocking it out on the stage) and Multi-Love feels, yet again, like a perfect middle ground between those nu psycho-idyllic places.
The more he records – and releases – the more I’m sure Ruban Nielson is a genius. And Multi-Love is multifaceted; something the cool-crowd of today can dig and those stuck in the past, imagining how Sly Stone might have nailed a solo version of a sequel for There’s A Riot Goin’ On or Fresh can also take some happy-hued solace in this sound (not that those two types of music listener are always mutually exclusive).
So, just a couple of examples of the Ruban Nielson genius: The songs that overtly address this post-modern/post-family romance contain the best and brightest and bubbliest pop hooks – Can’t Keep Checking My Phone would have been the right way for Stevie Wonder to follow up his Plants soundtrack and small handful of decent 80s pop tunes. And the title tune, and opening cut, bounces us straight into this murky, weird world. It’s exhilarating and special. Straight away.
Also – no matter how insular, how claustrophobic it can seem inside the songs, Nielson seems somehow to always and ever be surfing through the song or floating over it (The World is Crowded being one perfect example).
Contender for album of the year, easily – one of the strangest, most beautiful/blissful pop records of this age. I’ll say again: Ennui encapsulated, the heartbreak of strange desire, the realisation that what you had that made you happy is now maybe not enough. Yes, these are the modern blues of this world. And maybe especially because no matter how much of it you broadcast the best story – and best version of the story – is still and always the one in your head.