“Who is your god? Where is she?”
From the opening title track of the third LP from Unknown Mortal Orchestra comes a moment of muted hopelessness; a quietly devastating pocket of raw emotion, representative of the unanswered questions and feelings of loss in the wake of frontman Ruban Nielson’s polyamorous love affair. Fresh out of this emotional turmoil, Nielson gifts the world an album that doesn’t waste a second in each of its nine intricately structured tracks. The album is interspersed with these ponderous shadows of gloom, subducting beneath the starbursts of colour and sound that have become a trademark delight from the Portland three-piece. It’s arresting in the best possible way; the resulting album is an exhilarating saturation of psychedelic guitar trickery, pulsating, synth-warped drum beats and devilishly catchy bass lines.
With two albums under his belt, Nielson’s career has been turbulent. Years of touring off the back of their debut saw the ex-Mint Chick embroiled in an unsustainable lifestyle of hard-and-fast drug use. Sophomore offering ‘II’ was an intriguing result of the darkness this lead him to, an insightful record of guitar-driven melodies that delved into his wavering mental health. Taking a year off to wind back, record new material and focus on his relationships with his wife and two kids, an enigma entered into his marriage in the form of a young woman. Named under the guise ‘Laura’ in Nielson’s Pitchfork interview, she stole the hearts of both himself and his wife, Jenny. Their marriage survived the end of the polyamorous relationship, and as heightened production value injected new scope for emotional exploration within Nielson’s music, Multi-Love became an album that simultaneously searches for answers while contemplating the gloriously strange facets of love.
Album standout ‘Ur Life One Night’ is hyper-energised shoegaze pop that hairpins its way around the excitement of a one-night-stand – “She could be the love of your life / just for one night / she wants you, and love / don’t come into the equation.” Showcasing Ruban’s impeccable talent at writing astoundingly catchy guitar riffs (see II’s ‘No Need for a Leader), and brother Kody’s flawless mastery of drums, it feels short despite its four and a half minute running time. There’s no time to rest, either; it’s followed straight after by the soulful funk of ‘Can’t Keep Checking my Phone,’ which rolls South American influences together with disco drumbeats and themes of long-distance disconnection, based off Laura’s temporary departure for adventures in the Peruvian jungle.
It’s common to the human experience to return to family after an emotionally shattering experience, and the strengths of Multi-Love demonstrate this. Though their time as a band wasn’t always harmonious, Kody joined Ruban for six weeks to add drums, keyboard and extra collaboration on several songs. Father Chris also accentuates the influences of jazz and soul with brilliant horn lines in the dark and thoughtful tones of ‘Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty,’ and the downbeat groove of ‘Necessary Evil’. The reflective and insecure lyrics on the latter make it an interesting penultimate track; Nielson considers his worth to his wife - “I don’t get what you see in me / Lovin' me could be your fatal flaw.” But he realises the feelings are transactional; “We’re in love / But she don’t get what I see in her.”
It’s a moment of emotional resolution, and it leads into the final track ‘Puzzles,’ where the album’s story arc is given its close. Nielson has spent the record trying to grasp some sort of meaning in his experience, but ‘Puzzles’ turns this around in defiance. Drawing in themes of violence and racial tension in America, Nielson vents in the chorus; “I don’t want to solve your puzzle anymore.” Nielson’s world is abstract, bizarre and frustrating, but it’s not as though he’s given up – he’s making peace with the inconceivability of it. He’s loved as a lover, father and a husband, and it’s the density of these emotions that have made Multi-Love Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s finest offering yet.