The band’s love for unusual angles on familiar sounds has only been bolstered on their third album.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra has slinked quietly in the background of the psychedelic rock resurgence since their quality 2011 self-titled debut, an album that won hushed acclaim—and New Zealand’s third-ever awarded Taite Music Prize—for its singular lo-fi sound and bewitching songwriting. Their follow-up, II, upped the ante on those characteristics, bringing classic rock sounds, riffs and ideas into a realm of more delicate sensibilities where they balanced nuanced instrumentation and creamy melodies with rock’s hazy rigidity. On II, they not only continued down the path that they set out on with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but, unlike so many burgeoning rock bands who can’t be picked out of a line-up, they further defined themselves, both as outcasts in an outcast genre and as deviants in the stale but, for whatever reason, freshly revived psychedelic rock style.
The band’s love for unusual angles on familiar sounds has only been bolstered on their third album, Multi-Love. The album’s lead single title track starts things off from an oblique direction with a measured pace, a dainty clavinet lead and a more pronounced, dramatic vocal performance than singer Ruban Nielson typically delivers. It’s a beautiful and surprisingly conventionally structured pop ballad by Unknown Mortal Orchestra standards, and a unique beginning for the record, but it’s also one of the catchiest and emotionally upfront tracks in the band’s catalog—proof that, regardless of where the album stands in a qualitative ranking of their discography, it’s inarguably a progression for the band. Of course, by the time track two, “Like Acid Rain,” kicks in with its fizzy, lo-fi melodies and acutely compressed drums, Multi-Love starts feeling familiar, but no less vivid.
There are plenty more stylistic diversions throughout Multi-Love, each one an abstract, lo-fi take on the type of conventions usually buried under the surface of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s music. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” tackles disco with an intricate and groovy drum loop and bouncy bass and guitar lines; “The World Is Crowded” convincingly approaches the lilting funk of neo-soul; “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty,” which features an operatic instrumental refrain and saxophone solo, aims toward Ariel Pink’s psychedelic freak folk with an extra layer of rhapsodic theatricality. Smaller touches have similar effects: “Puzzles” jumps suddenly between gentle folk interludes and wailing hard rock riffing and “Necessary Evil,” an otherwise routine UMO song, features an unprecedented trumpet line to break up the hook. The cohesive, narrow approach of II is replaced on Multi-Love with much more sonic experimentalism and stylistic wanderlust, but the band’s singular lo-fi aesthetic is retained for maximum effect.
There’s no question that Multi-Love is the most varied collection of music ever put together by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but, as with all albums of that nature, it has its losses and its gains. Nielson, for instance, relies less on his elegant fingerpicking guitar technique that defined standout II numbers like “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” and “From the Sun” and, on Multi-Love, embraces a far more upfront position with his vocals. These shifts, major and minor, are how Multi-Love gets its individualist character, and while fans will no doubt play favorites with the band’s back catalog, this record will be virtually impossible for them or almost anyone to actively dislike—quite a feat for such a diverse collection.