Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Album review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II

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Album cover for II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo / Supplied
Album cover for II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo / Supplied

The opening line on the second album from Ruban Nielson's Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO), is a rather dark and compelling thought: "Isolation can put a gun in your hand".

Nielson wrote most of the songs on II while he was on tour - a whirlwind state of existence he's been trying to cope with since the first UMO album came out in 2010 and found international acclaim, and there's something in the new tracks that reflect the delirious lack of control, and often a feeling of loneliness, late at night, on the road.

On almost lullaby-esque Swim and Sleep he sings "I wish I could swim and sleep like a shark does, I'd fall to the bottom and I'd hide 'til the end of time in the sweet cool darkness" - sometimes even rock stars just want to go home and sleep.

The first UMO album had a cheeky light-hearted beatnik atmosphere, while II finds the usually wild and free Nielson sounding, dare I say it, quite mature, even heartfelt - and yet it's still an undeniably seductive, hook-filled collection.

In typical Nielson fashion, classic 60s pop influences meld with some deeply funk and soul-infused grooves, along with little baroque motifs, and jazz progressions. Delightful guitar lines (as on album opener From the Sun) are equally weighted by a palette of synths (like the Woodstock-ish epic Monki), and a rock and roll feel, like the rat-a-tat beat on No Need For a Leader, all ensconced in a warm, fuzzy aura.

Nielson seems more paternal than ever before - "who cares what God is, or what a guitar is, or that you were born. Monki, he wanted you". Throughout it all, there's a sort of tender touch, a considered, worldly outlook, and even the occasional hint of fatherly advice in his musings on his own life.

That doesn't mean it's lacking in any of the smart and snappy cool that has always been present in his songs, it's still an album that makes you wish you had cooler, more savvy dance moves. One At a Time somehow manages to meld desperation with free-wheeling abandon, The Opposite of Afternoon has a excellently hedonistic, fruity late-Beatles feel, and No Need For a Leader becomes a toe-tapping anthem to disillusionment. But it's So Good at Being in Trouble that makes the most immediate impression, and will keep repeating in your head long after the stereo's been switched off; beautifully wistful in its simplicity. Who could forget a line like "she was so good at being in trouble, so bad at being in love"?

Stars: 5/5
Verdict: Serious and seductive second album
Buy II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra here.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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