Perpetual outsider Ruban Nielson hones his dark tales of druggy isolation into works of warm, fuzzy beauty
It’s something of a miracle that Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s singer Ruban Nielson is even alive to make a second album. Since his 2011 debut, Nielson has been testing the limits of the mind with a cocktail of drugs that would make Raoul Duke from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas blush. Nielson describes his commitment to partying on tour as an “occupational hazard”. With ‘II’, he gets closer than ever to laying out those hazards for all to see.
“Isolation can put a gun in your hand”, he sings on first track ‘From The Sun’, setting the tone with a croak. From there, ‘II’ maps out a single, sleepless night that takes Nielson through dreams of his home and wife and child in Portland (‘So Good At Being In Trouble’) through the process of getting out, getting high, and trying to resist temptation (‘One At A Time’, ‘The Opposite Of Afternoon’). ‘Dawn’ explores his obsession with new age theories (see also the cover art, featuring British Wiccan high priestess Janet Farrar), while ‘Faded In The Morning’ fizzes with warm cassette sounds and the cheerful proclamation: “Don’t want to die today”. By the end, the sun is up and Nielson has kept his mind. So why does he sound so sad to see his insanity drained of its intensity in the cold light of day?
All the storytelling and structure makes ‘II’ much more considered than its self-titled 2011 predecessor. Although that album’s standout tracks ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ and ‘How Can You Luv Me’ were gloriously rough round the edges, ultimately it only grasped at themes that ‘II’ pins down with ease. The loneliness in the latter of those two tracks is what ‘II’ is all about. It’s drenched in the sense of being an outsider – a feeling that rises from Nielson’s life as a New Zealander in Portland, Oregon, perhaps.
‘II’ has clearly had the tape recordings cleaned up on a computer, but not enough to lose their analogue fuzz – the sound that makes this album as warm as any funk or psych classic. And make no mistake, the classics at work in Nielson’s mind are many: ‘No Need For A Leader’ reaches for the heaviness of Led Zeppelin and Yes, while ‘Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)’ mines that era’s baroque tendencies, with vocal melodies wound tight around quick-fingered guitar parts.
The aforementioned ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’, Nielson’s own favourite track here, is laid-back and soulful, with shades of Curtis Mayfield. ‘Dawn’ will annoy fans who want to hear Nielson’s top-notch songwriting rather than a one-minute mood-piece of distorted synths, but it’s made with the album in mind. Raw melody made Unknown Mortal Orchestra exciting two years ago; now they’ve matched it with attention to detail.