Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Jeff Pearson, February 4, 2013
Listen: “Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)”
“You’re on the road, hanging out, getting disillusioned about everything, thinking about how you’re going to die,” Ruban Nielson recently told Pitchfork. This sentence pretty much sums up the year that the Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman has had; while hardly getting a break from touring, left to wonder how he ended up in this situation when he had all but given up on making a career out of music, isolation was Nielson’s most familiar friend. It’s no surprise that isolation permeates through Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second full-length LP, II, given that since the release of their self-titled debut, he learned the peculiarly immersive feeling of isolation out on the road. He went on to say, “The last record was really warm and happy; this one’s lonely.” If he hadn’t said it, it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out that II is coming from a darker place than its predecessor.
The circumstances surround the recording of each of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s records alone is a pretty clear indication of why they are coming from such different places. Nielson had been in The Mint Chicks for nearly a decade with his brother Kody, but had resigned to simply using music as a hobby while pursuing a career in graphic design. He had begun to experiment with vintage equipment and vintage sonics the likes of Pink Floyd and The Beatles, not even telling his friends and family he was still working on music. The blog world got hold of his single Bandcamp track, the bouncy “Ffunny Ffriends,” and the Portland-by-way-of-New Zealand songwriter was pulled back into the music world. The self-titled record that followed came from a place of excitement, of comfort, more importantly, while now that Unknown Mortal Orchestra has become virtually a nonstop touring machine, II comes from a place of unrest and separation.
That separation is audible right from the start. “From The Sun” is a sparse introduction to the psychedelic minimalism that follows for the entire duration of the record. Where many of his contemporaries give their music a psych sheen with hazy effects and otherworldliness, Unknown Mortal Orchestra achieves a much grittier, bare version through adept use of space. It’s almost as if Nielson knows that nothing is more troubling and hallucinogenic than real life, the plain beauty and ugliness that we see right in front of us every day.
Lightly finger-picked guitars guide the record along through standouts like “Sleep And Swim (Like A Shark)” and “Faded In The Morning,” showing the wonderfully freeing element to Nielson’s music–there seem to be no bounds yet as his fingers nimbly roll over the strings, a feeling of control is always present. He said the record was highly influenced by Led Zeppelin’s constantly shifting compositional style, and it’s hard to not thing of the loose nature that Jimmy Page wielded his Les Paul as Neilson wields his Telecaster on II.
Arguably the album’s crowning achievement is the centerpiece section of “No Need For A Leader” and “Monki,” a sprawling congregation of styles where Nielson maneuvers from a groove-based guitar stomp to his loosest and most experimental playing this far. The juxtaposition of the two, and the fact that they bleed into one another, shows the finnicky nature of loneliness and how quickly a lifestyle can turn on someone. “No Need For A Leader” feels like the most full-bodied thing Unknown Mortal Orchestra has ever done, a picture of collaboration, while “Monki” is the sound of someone completely lost and alone out in the world.
Ultimately, the difference between Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II, the way that Nielson has been able to navigate these vastly varied stages of his life and make captivating music of completely different veins while doing so, is impressive. II is different enough to feel like a step in a new direction, but still retains the essence of what made Unknown Mortal Orchestra such a breakout act a few years ago when Nielson was perfectly fine with none of this having happened. After hearing II, it’s hard not to wonder if he’d still be.