It’s been a turbulent few years to say the least for Kiwi Ruban Neilson. After ending his stint in New Zealand pop-punk group The Mint Chicks, Neilson relocated to Portland and began recording experimental psychadelic jams in his basement. Flirting with the idea of quitting music and getting a 9-5 job, Neilson luckily released his solo work online before he dropped out of the game. A tune by the name of Ffunny Ffrends made it’s name heard around the world wide web and any chance of Neilson settling for a normal job was thrown out the window. These experimental jam sessions turned into Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who in June 2011 released their self-titled debut to critical acclaim. This has been followed by a relentless touring schedule, including numerous stints opening for indie heavyweights Grizzly Bear as well as a record deal with world-renowned Jagjaguwar. The gruelling time on the road served as Neilson’s main source of inspiration in developing sophomore release II. The never-ending parties and lifestyle that consume touring musicians had a huge impact on Neilson, who ultimately found himself battling intense psychological demons, loneliness and isolation.
This experience’s effect on UMO’s new music is immediately apparent. The first lyrics on opening track ‘From the Sun’ are “isolation can put a gun in your hand”, undeniably setting the tone for the rest of the album. ‘From the Sun’ also sees Neilson’s distorted vocals complain “I’m so tired, but I can never lay down my head… I’m so lonely, but I can never quite reach the phone”. Lead single ‘Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark Does)’ builds on this disdain; “I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does. I’d fall to the bottom and I’d hide ’til the end of time”. A far cry from the themes of their debut (Ffunny Ffrends: “I like all of my life, all of my life, all my funny friends.”)
60’s-esque dreamy, intertwining guitar hooks and riffs float through the clouds as does Neilson’s near-falsetto on another stand-out track ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’. Evidently, the idea for the song came from a late night encounter with a groupie in Neilson’s hotel room. Initially entering the room offering “party favours”she soon began sobbing, and pouring her heart out “I dunno man, I think I’m just so good at being in trouble”. This phrase obviously stuck in his mind, the end result is one of the more captivating hooks on the record; “So good at being in trouble/So bad at being in love.”
Another stand-out track for me is ‘Monki’. Space-like guitar picking gives way to a pulsating bass line, with Neilson’s vocals echoing with a haunted beauty “Who cares what God is? Or what a guitar is? Or that you were born?”
‘Faded in the Morning’s sharp, jagged guitar riffs and vocals cut like harsh sunlight through the blinds after a heavy night on the juice. Conveniently that’s what this jam is about, a homage to the big nights and miserable mornings.
Second-to-last song ‘Secret Xtians’ has more of an upbeat feel to it, powerful and captivating chord patterns create a great vibe that will leave it stuck in your head for days, no matter how many times you listen to it. “Secret Christians are all the same”.
All in all, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have managed to create another outstanding piece of work. While playing on completely different themes and emotions to their debut, they have managed to stick with the vintage, lo-fi sound that leaves listeners feeling equally as fuzzy on the inside. Neilson describes II as a “night album”, the lyrically poignant record is best enjoyed in a pitch black room, alone, with the speakers cranked. UMO are a band which require great attention and intent listening to fully appreciate their work, at times it may be hard but in the end it is a truly rewarding experience. Ruban Neilson’s brain child are further sky-rocketing to the heights of alternative music after this release, definitely one of my favourite records in the past few months.