Polygamy and psych pop: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multi-Love
Love takes strange forms. It can arrive fully formed, wholly established. It can contort and develop over years, decades even, fluctuating across the emotional spectrum chaotically. Love can come in pairs, triple, quadruple. Multi-love can healthily replace the old ideology of monogamy. And with such love to give and receive, wouldn’t you?
Probably not. I had just finished reading the fascinating Pitchfork interview with Unknown Mortal Orchestra main man Ruban Nielson. In the interview, Nielson details his two-year polygamous relationship with his wife and another woman. The three lived together on and off with two children, in what could only have been an emotionally exhausting yet wholly rewarding three-way relationship.
It’s the kind of emotional mess artists love to indulge in. Why? Creativity, inspiration, experience. Of course, without such an event, Nielson’s latest record under the Unknown Mortal Orchestra pseudonym, aptly titled Multi-Love, simply wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form.
The album plays as a narrative to the relationship Nielson shared with two women under one roof. Thematically, Multi-Love kinda feels like a party record, albeit a quiet and slightly confused one. The songs bounce with a pulse that was lacking on 2013’s II, establishing a move closer toward the pop sphere than the psychedelic sounds of his previous releases. It’s a welcome transition, emphasising Nielson’s abilities as not only a wonderful storyteller and producer, but as a dude with incredible melodic versatility as well.
In fact, the quality of songwriting of Multi-Love came to me as an extremely pleasant surprise. Suddenly, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has morphed from an outsider psych-pop outfit into a fully-fledged world of art pop brilliance in the vein of David Bowie, Prince and Peter Gabriel. The casually earwormy choruses of nearly every track on Multi-Love (especially “The World is Crowded”) keep the listener hooked, forever returning for more of those deliciously catchy melodies.
Sonically, Multi-Love also shifts in the right direction. Many of the psychedelic quirks of their earlier releases remain intact: the rampant flanger on “Stage or Screen”, the noodly intro of “Puzzles”, the hyper-condensed drums on “Like Acid Rain”. These idiosyncrasies set Nielson apart from lesser psych-pop artists of his ilk, evoking the mantra that sound and songwriting should be of equal importance.
And with a very healthy monetary advance, how could you not go all out and buy all the retro gear needed to produce such lush sounds? “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty” is an obvious exemplar of the extra funding Nielson received for this release. Here, he sounds much like a troubadour with too much money and no idea what to do with it all. He sings with the husky sorrow of a bearded folkie, yet around him a perfectly produced wall of psychedelic soundscapes curls and swirles. It’s kinda perfect; I’m sure Roger McGuinn would love it.
Multi-Love passes through a range of emotions before resting on the final cacophonic celebration “Puzzles”. Without a doubt the album’s strongest track, “Puzzles” moves through a selection of micro-phases and emotional changes before resting on a killer chorus with a melody that’ll shake houses.
The song epitomises the fresh sonic and songwriting outlook Nielson has taken for Multi-Love, an emotionally exhausting yet wholly cathartic piece of work about a period of time so clearly important and inspiring. It’s the kind of statement that makes you consider rethinking your views on monogamy.