If Unknown Mortal Orchestra began life as a mysterious, elusive project keen to withhold identity and clarity, with Multi-Life it has burst into vivid, colourful life. The hazy psychedelic sheen has been replaced by an enlightening retro-futurist sound with less emphasis on intoxicating guitar lines and much more on synthesisers, vintage keyboards (or at least sounds that seem to emulate them), lithe bass lines and rhythm. Whilst these songs are unlikely to scale chart heights, this really is pop music – albeit of an intricate and ambitious kind.
The scale of the change in approach is signalled immediately with the opening title-track. Its central chord sequence, with its nagging urgency, could easily have come from a disco track or even a slice of early 90s Italian house. The vocals are appropriately androgynous given the subject matter (“She don’t want to be a man or a woman/She wants to be your love”) and the whole track has a slippery menace underlying its vivid pop sensibility. Ruban Nielson’s attention to detail here is striking and impressive.
Whilst a number of these tracks draw on sonic elements from the past, the writing and production retains an individuality and distinction. Whilst Ur Life One Night, with its squelchy processed bass and guitar and new wave impetus, might sound at home on Prince’s Dirty Mind, the dry sounding drums and disguised vocals are entirely in keeping with this album’s consistent and haunting approach.
Guitar laden psychedelia has not been abandoned entirely of course. Crunchy guitars are an unnervingly imposing presence on the closing Puzzles. Stage Or Screen is characteristically trippy, with unpredictable twists and turns in its phrasing and harmony – always seeming perilously in danger of falling over the edge of a precipice between dreamy sense and murky drowsiness. But even this track is punctuated by a delightfully weird, mercilessly concise synth solo and later by a sudden burst of synth atmospheres that seem to invoke the spirit of John Carpenter soundtracks.
Multi-Love, at least in part, seems to be about the psychological impact of a decaying three-way relationship, but this also seems to serve as a gateway to a refreshing new perspective on Ruban Nielson’s recurring themes of alienation and isolation. On Multi-Love, these ideas make themselves most keenly felt through an inability to comprehend contemporary living. The slinky, exciting Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, with its percussive feeling of motion, investigates the frustrations ignited by the age of instant communication and Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty (complete with luxurious saxophone solo – surely a nod to the polish and excess of the ’80s) and the Sly Stone-meets-10cc The World Is Crowded hint at a broader socio-economic framework within which modern relationships are framed.
Part of the existential confusion is achieved through Nielson’s adoption of a wide range of vocal strategies – to the extent that the voice often sounds like a radically different character on each track. On Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty, he sounds gritty – at once both frustrated and determined, whereas on The World Is Crowded and the title track, he reaches for a more perplexed, questioning stance, deploying a vague falsetto and softer tone. On the impressive, insistent groove of Necessary Evil, the vocal sound is more direct and honest, albeit still treated with a fair degree of echo.
The writing and arranging on Multi-Love is broad and uncompromising, to the extent that it takes a few listens to get past listening on the level of pure aesthetics (a level on which Nielson excels) and to hear the nuance, subtlety and melodic invention on display too. Multi-Love is more than just a brilliantly designed sonic facade – its excoriation of modern psycho-sexual mores is impossible to resist, so too its musical detail and understanding.