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Album Review

by Unknown Mortal Orchestra


Review Date
8th February, 2013
Reviewed by
Courtney Sanders

“When you go on tour for that long, you're kind of just in survival mode. You don’t get to be a normal person making normal decisions - you’re just trying to get from one day to the next.” Ruban Nielson, ex-Mint Chick and songwriter behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, has been touring – and partying, and not sleeping – essentially ever since he posted his first, basement-recorded UMO track online and the press (Pitchfork) ran away with it. II was written on the road and diarises Nielson’s experiences, but not in a chronological way. The album is both a study of his unhealthy psychological state and confirmation of UMO’s success.

The appeal of both UMO and The Mint Chicks is/was their ability to balance on a knife-edge - that sharp, metallic place between solidity and total destruction (a place The Mint Chicks ultimately couldn’t maintain). Tracks like the fifth ‘How Can U Luv Me’ and sixth ‘Nerve Damage’ on I were self-produced, spontaneous affairs that reflected their whimsical - and kind of nonsensical - subject matter. While you could note that II’s arc is similar to the debut – tracks five ‘The Opposite of Afternoon’ and six ‘No Need for a Leader’ are also the sprightliest, with intensity retracting outwards from each – the immediacy of I is largely absent here. It has however, been replaced by something more powerful and - upon multiple listens, it is a slow burn - equally as chaotic and subversive. Nielson has deftly articulated what being AWOL in life feels like, and married those sentiments to a complimentary sonic palette that feels a little like being underwater: lightheaded and abstract, with reality mere metres away but forever out of reach. Or something like that.

On II Nielson starts as he means to go on. He opens with “Isolation can put a gun in your hand” on first track ‘From the Sun’ before repeating “I’m so tired but I can never lay down my head” in an evanescent, effect-heavy manner. All this nestles into a lethargic guitar line and a modest rhythm that is introduced later, one imagines begrudgingly – Nielson may have written this album while partying but this is not a party album. The two follow-up tracks, single ‘Swim and Sleep (like a shark)’ and ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’ are similarly dulcet. The aforementioned middle section most closely resembles I, but similar production and subject matter mean they support - rather than detract from - the sentiment of tracks one-through-three. Nielson reserves the end of II for experimentation, particularly on the psychedelically burnt-out number ‘Monki’ and ‘Dawn’ (an unnecessarily sixty seconds of instrumentation).

I'm aware of the contradiction in this review. That II is both less intense (sonically) and more intense (thematically) than I, and that it’s the interaction between these two that make it superior, so let me leave you with a comparison. When someone close to you is extremely mad at you which reaction do you find scarier / more powerful: erratic screaming, tears et al OR a studied, reflective silent treatment? II's the latter, and all the better for it.


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