REVIEW: Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love

Laura Kerry

Warm weather has officially arrived. No more mopey melodies and soft strumming in minor keys—bring on the groovy bass lines and unshakable choruses. It’s the season for summer jams and, after a long winter, it’s the season for fun (we deserve some, gosh darn it).

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s third LP, Multi-Love, belongs to summer in the way that all psychedelic music does. The season’s heat and energy lend themselves to the sort of delirium that the genre strives to explore. Psych-rock revels in the same manic quest for spontaneity that overtakes us during these few glorious months of the year.

Multi-Love, though, offers no ordinary psych-rock. Beyond the usual markers of the genre—filtered drums, some particularly wah-y wah wahs, and what I’m pretty sure is a theremin in one song—its most surreal quality lies elsewhere. UMO’s trip is temporal, taking us on a journey through the best pop music from the last 50 years. Listening to the album is like falling down the rabbit hole and bumping straight into Prince, nodding at the Jackson 5 from across the way, and disco dancing for a moment with the Bee Gees. In this hallucinatory space, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise when “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” a song that begins with a riff straight out of a ‘60s action film, rips a bass line verbatim from “Stayin’ Alive.” But that doesn’t mean it’s any less clever or delightful.

Unlike many who experiment with retro genres, UMO doesn’t just try on these types and cast them away in lazy gestures. The band, which New Zealand’s Ruban Nielson began in 2010, navigates the musical tropes with a dexterity that's only possible with two prerequisites: immersive knowledge and genuinely skilled musicianship. Here, the bits of the past aren’t a crutch or a gimmick, but an integral part of the album’s structure, incorporated down to its foundation.

Also resembling much of history’s best pop, Multi-Love stakes part of its intrigue on being slightly subversive, a bit contradictory, and a little sad. “Multi-Love,” the album’s title track and opener, exemplifies this. With its jangly keyboard arpeggios and catchy chorus, the song provides more than enough fodder for foot tapping and singing along. The bubbliness, though, is in tension with Nielson’s bluesy falsetto, which betrays the heartache and anxiety in the song’s narrative.

"Multi-Love," a literal translation of "polyamory," explores the woes of opening up a relationship to include another ("We were one / Then we were three")—a familiar angst couched in a less-often-visited story. Then, at the start of "Puzzles," the sound of crashing windows serves as a nod to the injustices in Ferguson and signals a turn to social consciousness. Elsewhere, UMO presents lyrics that, even when their meaning remains slightly obscured, hint at celebration, sorrow, and the many complexities in between.

Clearly, Multi-Love isn't the stuff of innocent strolls on the boardwalk—but which of the best summer music is, really? In its virtuosic journey, the album invites rolled-down windows and a carefree smile perfectly attuned to the sweet, warm-weather haze. Just in time, UMO has provided us all some much-needed seasonal catharsis.