Unknown Mortal Orchestra ‘Multi-Love’ (Jagjaguwar)

Polyamory-inspired psychedelia that will warm even the hardest of hearts

Boy meets girl. Boy already has a wife. Boy tells wife about girl, wife writes to girl, all three end up in a relationship. Boy writes an album of psych-electro-funk about it.

That’s the basis for ‘Multi-Love’, Ruban Nielson’s third long-player as Unknown Mortal Orchestra: it’s about being in two incredibly intense relationships simultaneously – one older, more settled, more secure, and one that is brand new, exciting, full of discoveries. It’s about seeing your wife with another woman and being deeply in love with both of them. It’s about never having to be alone. There being two people to disappoint instead of just one. Sometimes feeling like a third wheel in your own relationship. Waking up to realise that while you were sleeping something beautiful happened and you weren’t a part of it. It’s “not some hippie bullshit,” says Nielson, “but a hard-edged, cynical, and sharp kind of love.”

Perhaps because of this, listening to ‘Multi-Love’ almost feels like listening to two albums at once. Sometimes they exist in harmony, sometimes one overshadows the other. On occasion, it feels like you’re losing a grip on both. There’s layer upon layer of sound here, each confounding the other, disguising its complexities, drowning you in noise. And not only is Nielson’s analogue-filtered voice near indecipherable through the fuzzy production, the words themselves form great, sprawling riddles. “A good lyric was something that didn’t quite sit right,” according to Nielson, and the ambiguity of this statement certainly rings true in the listening.

The title track starts us off and sets the tone: Nielson’s high-pitched croon floats delicately over an intricate keyboard riff – and then the drums kick in. The idea of multi-love is as much a character as anyone else who features: she’s a hardened temptress, besetting Nielson with trials and heartbreak. This personification of polyamory torments him perpetually. “It’s not that this song is about her / All songs are about her,” he laments, in both pain and awe.

‘Multi-Love’ is by far Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s most complete and accomplished record. This is psychedelia tinged not with the usual nostalgia and reverence for the genre’s past, but a healthy dose of scepticism, and a forward looking approach. It’s futuristic, blurring genres, working on you like a dream. There’s the deliriously catchy soul-infused refrain of ‘The World Is Crowded’, and the mess of squelchy synths on ‘Ur Life One Night’ virtually side by side. ‘Can’t Keep Checking My Phone’ speaks to anyone who has navigated the difficulties of a new relationship in the smartphone age – plus it’s got a disco bassline to groove along to. ‘Extreme Wealth And Casual Cruelty’ follows with spaced out guitars, a horn solo from Nielson’s father, and the poignant line, “If we were just strangers then we would fall in love again…”

There’s a real fragility to ‘Multi-Love’, despite its fuzz and distortion, contrasted with the charm of its purposeful heavy-handedness. Love hurts, Nielson reminds us. Multi-love hurts even more. But love is also delightful, euphoric, breathtaking – multi-love is all that too, multiple times over.

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