“Why is there always crying and quarreling / Filtering through the malaise?” It’s challenging to think of a phrase that better defines the vibe of Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra, trying to bliss out while the horrors of the human condition come in to try and kill the vibe. While his music started as 1970s-grade, retro-trippy rock, soundtracking characters that pined for (and sometimes rejected) various forms of romance, Nielson’s recent work has been focused on simply finding peace.
Of course, finding peace during a global pandemic was hard for basically everyone. While the fun and focus of 2018’s Sex & Food made for what is arguably Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s most accomplished record to date, fans of Nielson were in a drought since the release of two 2021 standalone singles: the groovy “Weekend Run” and the stellar indie rock earworm that is “That Life”, where the above lyric stems from. Both of these songs eventually made their way over to V, Nielson’s fifth studio album under his Unknown Mortal Orchestra moniker (or sixth if you count his sprawling instrumental one-off IC-01 Hanoi from 2018).
Songwriting for this album started before the lockdowns began, and over the days, weeks, months, and years that followed, more songs were worked on as Nielson and his bandmates fought to make something happy instead of inward-gazing. “I don’t really subscribe to the idea that albums aren’t important anymore,” Nielson noted in a recent interview with Cool Hunting. “The process of mixing the record and getting it together, in the end, was about taking all this heaviness that we’ve been carrying around and all these events and reflecting on where we come from. I feel like it was really clear what the mood of the record was going to be because we were feeling something really strong.”
Billed as a double album, V falls into the trap almost all double records do: clocking in at just over 60 minutes, there wasn’t much of a specific thematic reason to split the songs down the middle. Stripping back the wilder guitar freakouts and ornate orchestration of Sex & Food, V feels almost like a return to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s earlier lo-fi mix of synths, psych guitars, and dusty drums spread throughout 14 songs. Nielson’s sonic remains unmistakable and insular, a jammy aesthetic wrapped around indelible pop hooks, but the joy of recent Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums has been finding the ways he deviates from his audience’s expectations.
Take “I Killed Captain Cook”, for example, a largely unaccompanied acoustic fingerpick of a number. It tells the story of the Hawaiian chief who killed colonist James Cook several hundred years ago. “Although the man lay dead on the sand / Darkness had not lifted there / There were much more on their way / With dollars in their hand,” sings Nielson, recounting a story passed on by his mother, who herself is a Hawaiian native. It’s a sweet little song, brimming with a personal connection, and feels like it could only be explored only in the breadth that a double-album format would allow.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the song immediately following and closing out V: “Drag”. Aptly named, it’s a nearly six-minute vamp with minimal purpose outside of perhaps soundtracking a smoke-out session, accented only by some faint “do do do” vocals peppered in. Between these two tracks lies the strangeness and tension of V: a double album is often associated with brimming ambition, but Nielson instead uses such a format to jam out, asking listeners to stop by at their leisure.
Those willing to explore V’s many sonic contours will unearth some genuine treasures, as some compositions on V rank among the best Nielson has ever made, from the aforementioned instant-masterpiece that is “That Life” to the gorgeous “In the Rear View”, which feels like it’s structured like a Joni Mitchell song even if it doesn’t sound like it. “Shin Ramyun” uses its processed guitar reverb to tango with shadows before lying down with them, and “The Garden” opens the album with a track that contains the kind of fire-breathing guitar solo fans have been clamoring for since Sex & Food.
Yet V is also filled with songs that feel so stereotypically Unknown Mortal Orchestra that they could’ve been dropped off at any point in their discography. “Meshuggah” ambles along a tight drum shuffle and the kind of syrupy keyboards that feel trademarked by the band at this point, while the cavernous instrumental “Keaukaha” comes and goes without leaving much of an impact. “Layla” lifts its title from one of the most instantly recognizable songs in the rock cannon and doesn’t do much with this reference outside of marrying it to the kind of track that feels almost boilerplate Unknown Mortal Orchestra (although it does contain the stellar couplet “How many burgers you wanna turn? / How many times you wanna get burned?”).
For every gorgeously rendered psycho-sexual ballad like “Nadja” comes a woozy static-scratched fuzzbox guitar workout like “Guilty Pleasures”, which is cursed with simply being good enough. At this point in his process, the music of Unknown Mortal Orchestra is all uniformly good, but the collection of tracks on V varies more than one would expect, perhaps due to being born out of a four-year recording process. Nielson and co. still know how to get wild — their usually-yearly “SB” EPs are filled with experiments and unchecked ambition — but for all the years of waiting, V is simply a good new album from the group. At times very good, but not with the consistency they had become increasingly known for.
Not that hardcore Unknown Mortal Orchestra fans will mind too much. For them, even the slight dings and uninteresting detours don’t detract from Nielson’s powerfully distinct songwriting and production. To them, critics’ complaints sound like crying and quarreling, filtering through the malaise.