I’m so tired of everything retro, revivalist, vintage or basically anything else that involves digging up some dead style just so you don’t have to put in the effort to create your own.
Many bands attempt this zombification of swagger and few succeed. Notable successes: The White Stripes (or really anything Jack White is in), M83, kind of LCD Soundsystem and now, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. With their second album, the brilliantly-named “II,” Unknown Mortal Orchestra does what few other retro-sounding bands are able to: mix their influences fluently into their own masterful songcraft.
The influences, unfortunately, can be a little distracting. When I first heard the album, the low fidelity feel was almost overpowering. One notices almost immediately in the vocals of “From The Sun,” the first song on the album. However, at 1:30 into the song, you immediately realize what a great tool the fuzzy production really is. It softens the sharp guitar stabs that punctuate the second verse of the song and gives the song a warm, 60s-ish aura, an aura the band plays perfectly in.
What gives the album its charm is that, although the production could’ve put the album square into the “zombified style” of 60s revivalism, the brilliant songwriting of Ruban Nielson (the main songwriter/singer/guitarist of the band) carries the album far above it. His style could probably be described as “labyrinthine.” The exploratory structures of the songs can sometimes be incredibly difficult to follow, but if given the proper patience, reward the listener with incredibly imaginative melodies, melodies that could’ve easily made a wrong turn at any point but somehow didn’t.
Most of the album is hushed and muted, but every once in a while, in songs like “One At A Time” and “No Need For A Leader,” Nielson breaks out the distortion and wah-wah pedals and kicks out the jams. The more straightforward rock songs stand out in the album and make the contrast between themselves and every other song on the album very noticeable. These are the only songs on the album that wouldn’t sound right on an acoustic guitar.
The “acoustic guitar” feel of the album is really what makes it so amazingly easy to attach to. Even the hard rockers on the album feel frail and intricate. It’s a very human, “Mortal” album. Lyrically, as well, the songs are delicate and scared: Nielson sings of a wish to “swim and sleep like a shark” and “hide ’til the end of time” in “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark).” In “From The Sun,” he tells us “isolation can put a gun in your hand.” In an interview with Pitchfork.com, Nielson said he used the word “lonely” so much in the album he felt he need to “pull out a thesaurus.”
And he is right. This is an album centered on loneliness. Every song has a vague pull of detachment that the fuzzed-out, lo-fi production amplifies even as it compresses. The difficulty of the songs is almost a symptom of this isolation. Luckily, even with such a sad theme for the album, it brings enough head-bobbing melodic brilliance with it to make it worth listening to again and again.