When Unknown Mortal Orchestra first surfaced in 2010, it was near-impossible to find out anything about the person behind the music. The UMO name itself was obtuse, while that year’s self-titled debut EP — a four-song collision of lo-fi punk and strangled funk rhythms with a skull graphic on the sleeve — left plenty to the imagination. It was an artful mess: a record with a magical vibe that left the lingering impression that some great undiscovered talent was behind the songs.
We now know a lot more about Ruban Nielson 13 years later. Over the course of four albums, plus 2018’s instrumental jazz LP ‘IC-01 Hanoi’, he has amassed a catalogue that fetishises the guitar, is rooted in punk and psychedelia, and explores his inner demons. The project seemed to peak in 2015 when the poppy, rhythmic overload of ‘Multi-Love’ revealed the polyamorous relationship Nielson had with his wife Jenny and a woman he met on tour.
Perhaps such candour was always destined to escape: Nielsen writes too eloquently about emotions to stay hidden behind tape hiss. ‘V’, his fifth full-length record, backs up that idea. Running over 14 tracks and 60 minutes, it’s the first UMO double album and the extra space is warranted.
Having left New Zealand for Portland when UMO took off, Nielsen found himself being drawn back towards his family, which also has roots in Hawaii, in 2019 when one of his uncles was diagnosed with cancer. Nielson spent time in Hilo with his family, dividing his days between there and Palm Springs, where he’d bought a house. The resulting record — which, along with his brother and bandmate Kody, also features Nielson’s father — has a sun-baked sound, informed by the crackling AM radio Nielson would listen to under pink skies on the road with his parents (who were also performers) as a kid. ‘V’ is all palm trees, pools and pain.
“Hold on tight ’cause it’s violent after dark / In the garden,” Nielson sings on opener ‘The Garden’. A classic UMO groove, it clocks in at over the six-minute mark and sets the tone for an album that takes its time. ‘Guilty Pleasures’ meanders into Meshuggah which, along with ‘That Life’ and ‘Weekend Run’, emerge as the album’s anthems, all built on punching drums and guitar licks (Nielson’s Jimi Hendrix fixation is still intact, as is his obsession with vintage equipment and building his own pedals).
As ‘V’ unfolds via no less than four instrumentals, the second half is slower, with laidback ballads such as ‘Layla’ and ‘Nadja’ inviting the listener to ruminate along with Nielson. By the end this has the feel of a magnum opus, unrelentingly ambitious with just the right amount of self-indulgence. Throughout Nielson’s career, an idea has persisted that UMO could compete with, say, Bruno Mars if he cleaned up the production, but then that would be a great shame. Nielson continues to thrive amidst the mess.
Release date: March 17
Record label: Jagjaguwar