Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II


Ruban Nielson never meant UMO to become anything more than a pure experiment, something to pass the time with after the decision to quit his former band. If 2011’s wonderful self-titled debut sounded like a bunch of rough demos, then II is more painstakingly constructed with a stronger sense of purpose. By signing to Jagjaguwar, Nielson acquired a somewhat bigger production budget, left the samples aside for a real drummer, and suddenly the bedroom project of UMO has turned into a trio.

Viewing II purely musically, it might not come off as the most unique or innovative record, but there lies a much deeper meaning to these songs if the lyrics are considered. Depression is a paradoxical disorder that comes in many shapes and forms, and as far as I know, no album has ever tackled the complexity of depression in the same manner as II.

“Isolation can put a gun in your hand”, the powerful opening line of “From The Sun” sets the tone while the music contradicts the dark theme by staying upbeat and optimistic. The contradiction between the thematic seriousness and the uplifting spirit of Nielson’s compositions is what makes II such an accomplishment. It’s possible to enjoy it purely for its intense and vivid melodies, but for those of us who tackled severe depression, Nielson speaks in an honest and profound way. Whether the fact that isolation can become a trigger for depression as he so frankly and expressively examines on “From The Sun” , or that depression in itself can lead to a strong need for isolation, he shows the complexity of this disorder. On “Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)” he expresses the need to hide from all the problems by using the old saying that sharks need to swim while sleeping to stay afloat as a metaphor for escapism; “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 / In that sweet cool darkness / Asleep and constantly floating away”.

Whether Nielson uses dreams and sleep as an allusion of depression, like on “One At A Time” ; “I’m only lonely through the night / I’m sweating, fretting through the flight / I’m out of the sight / I’m crying, I am flying like a kite”, or just brushes on the subject with nifty suggestions, as on the bit more optimistic “Faded In The Morning”: “Sun is rising / stings my eyes and don’t wanna die today / faded in the morning time”, he shows what an expressive and inventive songwriter he is. The lyrics are often short and to the point, leaving the listener with a persistent sensation of wanting more.

While the lyrics have a deeper connection with my own personal experiences in life, also the compositions bare a distant familiarity; channeling some of the music I was accustomed to while growing up in my childhood home. To give you a clue, it sounds like an obscure morphing of George Harrison, Sly Stone and Led Zeppelin, but Nielson never attempt to imitate, rather he gives you small delicate hints toward a comforting warm presence of past greats while never budging  from his distinctive lo-fi formula. As an example, the seven minute drugged-up psych-escapade of “Monki” is what I imagine it would sound like being stoned out of my brain on a far hill at Woodstock, while listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio”, or the gorgeous soul-pop of “So Good At Being In Trouble” may give a few nods towards Sly Stone’s “Family Affair”, but the song live in an isolated canister, hidden away from the burdens of history and context. There’s a sense of seclusion present in the albums aesthetic, but they seldom feel cold or completely hopeless. Rather, there’s a warm lingering presence that makes every revisit welcoming.

II may by no means be a pioneering album, but it’s unconventional and unpredictable. It lives out-of-time, wandering aimlessly without a place in the confinement of contemporary art, yet it’s the sort of record that will live with me long after the year closes and all the best of lists have been written. I’m not sure everyone is invited along for the ride; I presume there are plenty of alienating elements; whether the characteristic overdubbed lo-fi style, the weighty topics or that it can seem too backward-looking and nostalgic at initial glance. However, underneath it all, II is a true work of art, dealing with a topic that is easy to shy away from, while living in the crossfire between dark and light, night and day, happy or sad, exploring that hazy hypnotic moment when falling in sleep, our out of sleep, when your unconscious barriers are temporary broken down. Its hope and hopelessness boiled down to one substantial creation of a man who all too well knows the pitfalls of the human mind.

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2 thoughts on “Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

  1. jprobichaud says:

    Nicely articulated. I haven’t listened to this album for a few months but I’m willing to bet, I’ll be listening with a whole new set if ears when I sit down to it again. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

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