Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Multi-Love

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UMO Multi-Love

If you follow pop music, by now you know the story behind Multi Love. Ruban Nielson, the synth-mad mad-scientist/frontman of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, met a fan on tour. They connected and stayed connected—after months of correspondence, Nielson and his wife invited the fan to live with them and their two kids in Oregon. And so, for a year, they became a family of sorts. And so, the very literally titled Multi-Love came into existence.

Knowing this before listening to the album, I had certain melancholy expectations. I was wrong. It starts like a Legend of Zelda score: bouncy piano, light and unserious. And then comes that voice. And then those drums.

"Muuuuulti-Looooooove," like a ghost, drawing us into a song that typifies the albums strengths and weaknesses—earwormy melodies, exquisite production, and lyrical themes scored in 21st century romance. Immediately, Multi-Love introduces its polyamorous priorities in multiple senses, equally emphasizing real-life interpersonal relationships as Nielson's many-tendriled affection for multi-instrumentation and electronic layering.

In this way, Unknown Mortal Orchestra solidifies its reputation as pop for the internet generation. Remember, UMO originally emerged from a mysterious Bandcamp page with song titles spelled like texts, and their current music reflects these now mythic origins. Take "Ur Life One Night,” its melodies built of rubber bands and Nielson's voice just distorted enough to disguise itself as instrumental synth. While the wide, stadium-style choruses certainly pay homage to 60s and 70s pop redolent of the Beach Boys and Frank Zappa, the production and sentiment are straight Millennial. Hell, "Can't Keep Checking My Phone"—an abstract chrome-plated rant on lust and technology-fueled jealousy—feels ripped from just about any 20-something's night out away from the b/gf.

This dual combination of romantic frustration and ecstasy anchors the album, but also limits it. While the first half exemplifies our society's increasingly liberal understanding of love, songs that depart from the album's tumultuous origins descend from transcendental to just very good territory. Even songs like the "The World is Crowded," perhaps the album's catchiest tune, leave me wishing for a return to the tension and confusion that defines the opening tracks, instead of a soaring but frustratingly recognizable chorus.

It's in these moments that the Multi-Love doesn't speak as loudly as the story that inspired it. In the interviews about the album's conception, Nielson's describes love as an intricately stitched, ever-unfolding puzzle. But by ditching these ideas in favor of pop tropes, Nielson undoes much of the magic sewn through the album's first half. Some songs or albums melt into their origin story, creating a mythos that is equally part music and narrative. I can’t listen to “Layla” without picturing Clapton on his knees, completely undone before George Harrison’s wife. By the album's end, however, the music of Multi-Love separates itself from the surrounding story, and not necessarily for the better. Once a few months pass and the buzz has died down, this will no longer be a groundbreaking album about the complexities of modern relationships. It will just be another very good album. 

B+

Multi-Love is out now. It’s available on MP3, CD, and vinyl.