Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Release Date: February 5th, 2013
Depression is an absolutely fascinating disorder. Minus those few perfectly adjusted humans, depression is a universal feeling experienced on varying levels. It’s because this condition is so widespread that so many artists, no matter the medium, try to communicate its complexities through their art form. On Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second LP, II, frontman Ruban Nielson crafts an artistic document that is not merely an album, but rather, one of the most important contemporary statements on the ups and downs of life, loneliness, and depression. All of these thematic accomplishments are encased by beautiful melodies and virtuoso flourishes that make II a complete masterpiece from start to finish.
Rarely does the opening track of an album so simply state the thematic material of an entire record, while at the same time launching the listener on a perfectly-guided journey, right from the first drop of the needle. This is exactly what happens with album opener, “From The Sun,” the most powerful track on II. Nielson approaches the cliché and overused examination of suicide in art (see any college short film…someone is going to contemplate suicide) by juxtaposing the theme with melodies that teeter between dark and happy, dramatic and whimsical. The lyrics are heavy from the start, as Nielson sings, “Isolation can put a gun in your hand.” As this lyric lands, a shimmering guitar reflects from below with ever-expanding sounds that seem to stretch from ear to ear. Then, all of a sudden, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s patented crunchy drums kick in and the listener finds themselves tapping their toe to a melody that still backs the very dark themes of suicide, isolation, loneliness, etc.
It’s in this contradiction of melody to vocal theme that the genius of II hit me like a ton of bricks. Depression, or at least the depression I’ve experienced in my life, can rarely be summarized or attributed to events in just a few brushstrokes. Depression is complicated, and emotions swings rapidly from one day to the next. I’ve felt this way for a large part of my life, yo-yoing from happy to sad to happy and then back to sad, day in and day out. I'm sure lots of people have felt it. II is the first album that captures it. Just listen to the second track, “Swim and Sleep,” which acts as a foil to “From The Sun.” Where the opening track displays loneliness in its raw, negative form, “Swim and Sleep” makes a fascinating case for how getting away from it all can be a positive. On the track, Neilson crafts the image of being like a shark and hiding from all the problems of the world at the bottom of the sea. The lyrics of “Swim and Sleep” are bold, conjuring up sharp visuals with ease. Neilson says, “the sweet cold darkness, asleep and constantly floating away…” This is poetry examining the wish of letting it all go and existing in the limitless space of nothing.
Back to back, these two wonderful tracks display the same theme, but the approach and examination take on two very different forms, forms that collide head on, causing the listener themselves to consider the meaning, as well as the different ways depression and isolation play a part in their own life. Then, the album moves away from the heaviness of thematic exploration on “So Good At Being In Trouble,” “One At A Time,” “The Opposite Of Afternoon,” and “No Need For A Leader.” I consider this the stand-alone funk song stretch of II.
All four songs work one after another to provide the generally upbeat mood that fans of the band may have been expecting, but that isn't to suggest that the tracks are disconnected from the album's overall themes. Just as “So Good At Being In Trouble” tackled the frustrating aspects of being in love with someone who can’t give love, these four tracks examine possible causes of depression. “One At A Time” finds Neilson examining loneliness at night and how it represents itself in dreams. “The Opposite Of Afternoon” deals with the interconnections of body and nature being one, using images like open veins against visuals of crashing against dirt to paint a dependency of humans to the land they occupy and how overwhelming that can be. “No Need For A Leader” is a fuzzed out jam that takes on how to deal when the worst of life comes into the picture and how we deal with failing, falling, and the revolving door of up-and-down emotions.
After this glued-together run of four funky, upbeat, and thoughtful tracks click off, the album presents its most polarizing and daring track, the seven minute slow churner, “Monki”. As with most long things in life, if you know full length of time going in, it’s going to seem exhausting. It’s one of the weirdest things in music, there are no rules against tracks that top five minutes, but we usually treat them as bizarre pieces of art that better justify their length. The first time I heard “Monki,” I wasn’t aware of its seven minute price tag and the song just seemed to glide past with little tension, a perfect pallet cleanser coming off four aggressively upbeat tracks. “Monki” is a wonderful intermission on II, allowing for the mood to settle back into the introspectiveness of the first two tracks, while still moving the album forward to its inevitable ending. Sure, “Monki” meanders around with Neilson noodling on his guitar, but it feels more like he’s taking the album outside for a light walk before bringing the listener back inside for the final three track push.
That said, Neilson doesn’t just snap right back into things after the drifting “Monki,” and he's smart not to. Instead, he gives us a futuristic, instrumental bridge of a track in “Dawn,” a track that tells the listener to take their seats, for the program is about to resume. It’s a wonderful little soundscape of eerie tones that seem to pulsate, and just as “Dawn” ticks away, the catchiest song on II, “Faded In The Morning,” bursts open. Neilson exudes a confidence in his vocals that seems to have developed over the course of the album. He’s grabbing the listener now and singing at them, not proposing thematic questions like before. “Faded In The Morning” comes across as a narrative, Neilson telling the story of dealing with the brightness and newness of morning despite being hungover or “faded." The song also acts as a callback to the opening of the album, where we learned that hiding from the sun and isolation can put a gun in your hand. Now, on “Faded In The Morning,” we have “sun is rising, stings my eyes, don’t want to die…today.”
The album ends with my personal favorite track from II, “Secret Xtians.” The track begins with an acoustic guitar that seems larger then life, simply strummed, but each chord seems to carry a great deal of weight. Just like on “From The Sun,” the track opens up as those crunchy drums kick in and Neilson settles into one of the more satisfying grooves on the record. It’s on “Secret Xtians” that Neilson drives his intentions with II home in the most beautiful way possible. Once again, the melody and the lyrical content clash. The music of “Secret Xtians” feels like a blissful and uplifting tune - its bouncy bass and playful guitar immediately put a smile on my face. But then, there's Neilson, talking of hiding from the day, of struggling with being “grumpy” or “cold,” and of the shifting nature of downtrodden emotions. The genius of II, promised within the opener “From The Sun,” gets sealed in the final minutes of “Secret Xtians.” At the height of the song, Neilson begins to croon like something from The Beatles, a bunch of “na, na, na, na, nas” and non-word scat-singing. It all comes across as fun and uplifting, a weird final notion for such a darkly thematic record. If he had ended II right there, all might have been lost, but the song shifts from the glorious, happy chants to a melancholy guitar that swirls around as if lost. It’s in this moment that Neilson chooses to end his album with a question mark and a shrug rather than an "everything will be all right" moment. The mysterious ending guitar riff takes all of the inner thoughts Neilson has presented on II and says, "this is me stripped down, these are my thoughts, this is the music that reflects those thoughts, I don’t have the answers, maybe there aren’t answers, what do you think?"
With The Mint Chicks and the self-titled debut album from Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Neilson showed the world that he’s a suburb talent to be taken seriously as one of the better songwriters emerging. While I loved his previous works, it always seemed like he was holding back from giving his listeners a look into the inner workings of his mind, keeping the songwriting and the personal at a distance with the curtain of catchy hooks and music that was just downright delightful. On II, Neilson has delivered an artistic document that might not be adequately appreciated for some time. Never before has such a unique examination of the shifting mental state been so perfectly concocted and supported by the necessary musical accompaniment. II will never be beholden to a specific time period, as the condition and complexities of depression will always exist, which means Neilson has created a timeless work of art that depends on the listener to dig deep, study, and immerse themselves in the wealth of virtue that it presents.