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“Multi-Love,” or The Art of A Loveable Claustrophobia

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I can vividly picture the first reaction of those familiar with the previous work of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to the opening moments of its newest release Multi-Love: eyes widening with a growing shock through its nearly twenty seconds of solo/quasi-classical piano introduction. I can do this because my reaction was the same, an overwhelming confusion building throughout the just-shy-of-a-minute wait before we encounter those characteristically boxy, grit-laden drums and shimmering guitars that have defined all prior releases by Ruben Nielsen under the “UMO” umbrella. At first, the thin distortion enveloping every element of the arrangement is our one tether to the past, and does not do much to ease an otherwise jarring transition.

However, as we move along, it becomes clear that the band has not overhauled their sound so much as discovered a new depth to dive to, expanding their arsenal of instrumentation in service of shading in the outlines. UMO remains an exercise in restraint, in danceable claustrophobia, only now we (the audience) are allowed one step closer to the author’s anxiety.

Take “The World Is Crowded”: The sweeping string arrangement that envelopes the soulful mid-album chorus does not undermine it’s defining uncertainty, but instead offers a comforting and expansive warmth to its central question, “Did your doctor prescribe me for what ails you.” In that moment, all of the anxiety the author feels over whether his love for his partner is to her benefit or detriment is brought dramatically into focus, humanized by how fully it envelopes us, while still keeping his voice a thin and brittle distance away.

It is much the same with UMO’s lyrics: more often than not, we find the most evocative phases tucked into the back pockets of second verses and beneath layers of distortion: “It’s not that this song’s about her/all song’s are about her,” swallowed by its surrounding arrangement; “Loving me could be your fatal flaw,” disjointed and breathy in its delivery. It is clear that Ruben is not comfortable allowing anyone to appreciate his genius easily.

And in many ways that is what allows him to be successful, especially on this offering. Songs addressing topics of polygamy (as so many do on Multi-Love, hence the title) could in another artist’s hands quickly turn boastful or degrading. But instead, we find this ugly-duck love child of John Lennon and Prince spinning claustrophobic anthems about his fears of loosing one partner to another, of his worth within a convoluted relationship, of reconciling lost love when so much of it still remains. These are not easy subjects to tackle, nor are they universal in their accessibility. But discomfort is. Unrest, anxiety, those emotions exist (to varying degrees) within all of us. And Unknown Mortal Orchestra has found a way to package them, to hand them back to us with just the right amount of distance for us to remain wary, and just the right amount of warmth for us to feel at home.