Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, ‘Multi-Love’
It takes a lot of nerve to borrow from Stevie Wonder and Prince on back-to-back tunes. Moreover, it takes keen musical instincts to pull it off with any measure of respectability. But on the third album from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, bandleader and core member Ruban Nielson appears to be working off pure instinct rather than calculation. Essentially a lament over the departure of a romantic partner with whom Nielson and his wife formed a triangular relationship in 2014, the pain between Multi-Love's grooves makes it more than an exercise in production – even though that pain mostly stays hidden behind bright and outwardly celebratory R&B vibes.
On his first two albums as UMO, Nielson anchored his sound – indeed, made his reputation – on a solid neo-psychedelic foundation. And to be fair, Multi-Love contains myriad psychedelic touches. It also bears obvious signs of sonic tinkering along the lines of hands-on-the-faders funk and soul classics by Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis. "Necessary Evil," the album's most nakedly melancholic moment, starts off with a sultry groove along the lines of the B.T. Express classic "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)," but ends up as the only tune where Nielson puts all the sonic window dressing aside and openly bares his soul. Nevertheless, Nielson's heartache endows the whole album's experimental undercurrent with purpose.
Nielson – an expat New Zealander – wrote and recorded Multi-Love in his Portland, Ore. basement with significant contributions from his brother and former Mint Chicks bandmate Kody Nielson on drums, bass, piano, synth, engineering and production. Their father, Chris Nielson, supplies horns while Riley Geare and Jacob Portrait contribute in various capacities as well. Still, Multi-Love transcends its stylistic markings as a modern, lo-fi answer to blue-eyed soul or the work of the latest indie musician to discover funk. By comparison, no one could rightfully accuse Scritti Politti or Hall & Oates of ripping off or appropriating R&B because those acts always put their own individual songwriting stamp on their music. The same goes for Nielson. Moreover, it's not often that love-themed music aspires to actually be lovely. Nielson has certainly put in his bid with this album.