Unknown Mortal Orchestra are often grouped in with the same subset of classic indie rock-leaning bands that have become a fixture at music festivals across the country (think Tame Impala or Cage the Elephant), but it always seemed a bit unfair that they would be branded as a “retro” act. Over the course of two albums, principal songwriter Ruban Neilson revealed himself to be a studio wizard, creating textures and moods that reach well beyond the warm, monophonic tones of yesteryear.
However, there is something decidedly smooth and relaxed about Unknown Mortal Orchestra, something that recalls summer days and romantic times, even with a layer of tension bubbling underneath the surface. That tension explodes all over Multi-Love, the band’s third full-length, and the result is something of a “noble mess”. It’s a daring record in which Neilson tries admirably to switch up what had become a holding pattern for his band. Does it work, though? Not quite.
The big shift on Multi-Love is most apparent in Neilson’s lyrics, which are more jittery and nervous than ever before. Where he once seemed most focused on the loneliness of the human experience, Neilson’s newer work finds its inspiration in companionship and interaction with others. (This is, after all, an album with a song titled “The World Is Crowded.”) First single “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” is the best example of this; its title and chorus are delivered without much pretense or density. It’s a love song, in the sense that it concerns the trials and tribulations of people in love. Multi-Love is very much filled with these kinds of songs. Now that Neilson has stepped out of his bedroom, his observations of the outside world that he had previously ignored are interesting enough to hold our attention.
The expansive new outlook that Neilson has is also true of how Unknown Mortal Orchestra sound on Multi-Love, as this is easily the most frenzied and daring record that the band have attempted so far. Multi-Love features stabs at funk, R&B, stoner rock, and synth-pop, among other things. It’s all done with intricate, layered arrangements that showcase Neilson’s considerable gifts for songwriting and the group’s sharpened attack. When it comes together perfectly, as on the jaunty “Like Acid Rain,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra have never sounded better.
Alas, however, much of Multi-Love falls prey to that age-old trap of doing too much all at once. For all of Neilson’s inventiveness, some of his songs seem to be too busy for their own sake, as if he’s concealing the simple nature of his lyrics with ornate music. “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”, for example, meanders for about six minutes without saying much of anything lyrically, but it allows Neilson and his band to flex their muscles a bit. It can be a pleasant listen, but the band struggles to reach a point beyond it, and that’s where Multi-Love can occasionally come up short.
Still, for all of its faults, Multi-Love is far more engaging and interesting than anything being created by Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s so-called contemporaries. This is a band with a sense of adventure and the willingness to take risks, even if it means they fuck up once in a while. A group with this much creative drive is bound to have some missteps, and if this is a misstep for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, then there’s nothing wrong with that.