For the love of everything, don’t judge this album by its unfortunate cover, which resembles something posted to a struggling musician’s Instagram circa 2012. You know, back when filtering photos within an inch of recognition was still cool or hip or whatever. While Ruban Neilson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s principle-songwriter-cum-mad-scientist was hardly a household name in 2012, he wasn’t a nobody with nothing but a SoundCloud link either.
By 2012, Neilson had moved on from the dissolution of The Mint Chicks, released his universally acclaimed debut as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, signed to Jagjaguwar, and begun work on the band’s second album, II. So let’s not pretend he was telling anyone his mixtape was fire, fam.
To his credit, II was indeed fire. Its follow up, Multi-Love, is more of a slow burn, a psychedelic pop record detailing Neilson’s experiences as one-third of a polyamorous relationship. The album holds an unadorned but poetic power, vulnerable and at risk of giving out under the strain of a complicated romance at any moment.
The stakes are undoubtedly high. Multi-Love’s world is druggy and sexed up and fraught with uncertainty, its nerves frayed and its emotions rubbed raw from overuse. Neilson narrates the dangerous landscape with incredible lyrics, including the double entendre (“Messed with Polly and Marie / Took some Xany and some Addy / Does this mean you’ll never blow me again?”) amidst the punchy synth curves of “Like Acid Rain”.
Lyrics like that position Neilson miles above his contemporaries, but the album’s personal fixations quickly wear thin. Multi-Love reaches for larger truths regarding the way we live now – album highlight “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” expresses frustration with being tethered to a device over a complex beat and delicious groove – but never enough to avoid convicting the album of navel-gazing.
But damn, the guy just can’t win: the tracks on which Neilson deviates from his personal fixations tend to flop. Seven-minute album closer “Puzzles” addresses America’s rapidly changing racial tensions by playing devil’s advocate – “Is it right to always fight against the other? / What is a ‘person of color’? / Is it wrong to have a zone that isn’t monochrome?” – but Neilson’s approach proves non-committal when he stops short of making any potentially polarizing statement.
Occasionally unsatisfying statements aside, Neilson’s remarkable songwriting and understanding of the ebb and flow of a groove elevate the record. He mixes layered drums with buzzing synthesizers to stitch together his spiraling sounds, never shying away from the playful or melodic, especially within the squelchy chorus of “Ur Life One Night”.
With the exception of the subtle R&B-meets-soft-rock pleasures of “The World Is Crowded”, the first four tracks are the best Multi-Love has to offer. The album tilts disproportionately towards its front, sputtering over uninspired riffs and awkward horns on its back half. And if there is any justice in this world, those awkward horns will stand as a lesson to Pink Floyd emulators everywhere: don’t force the brass.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut and sophomore albums offered an antidote to our present era of full-throttle revivalist psych rock, and Multi-Love stays in step with that mission to refuse the rose-colored Lennon glasses. The record starts strong, rolls forward with several solid tracks, then turns mediocre and leaves its back half to flounder. Still Neilson’s commitment to keep his psychedelic vibrations facing forward keeps the album from totally failing even at its most mediocre.
That said – for all Multi-Love’s flaws and missteps, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” is still one hell of a tune.