Like David Bowie or Yoplait Go-Gurt, Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra has an uncanny talent for ideas that feel in the moment and of the near future, just an election cycle or two away.
The undisputed hit from his new record Multi-Love, "Can't Keep Checking My Phone," pinpoints the feeling of a distracted mind checking updates and texts every four minutes. Set to a deft hi-hat shuffle, the tune could be a radio hit if it wasn't from the pen of a Polynesian psych rock savant. "The World is Crowded/ Did your doctor prescribe enough?" he sings on "The World is Crowded," feeling anxious and in awe of a world tipping into the future.
For the 35-year-old, these themes also act as a form of branding, ensuring that listeners don't banish him to the dollar-bin behind the stereo.
"I feel like people associate me with music from the past a lot. Especially on II, people said it was supposed to feel like a lost record that you would buy at a yard sale, or something like that, and then discover some kind of hidden gem," said Nielson. "On the next record, I felt like I wanted to take all of these influences from the past but talk about things that could only be written about now ... I've always thought that UMO was a futuristic band, but the music sounds like something pulled up from the past. But the way that the band started and the way my career has been is a contemporary story."
In 2010, so the story goes, Nielson moved from New Zealand to Portland to start over, trading his role as a punk guitarist for a graphic designer. Still hearing the call of music, he began recording in his basement and posted a song under an anonymous moniker: Unknown Mortal Orchestra. "Ffunny Ffrends," the original single, is a crackling and irresistible psych-pop tune in which Nielson shows his more-than-capable shredding. Shortly after the track appeared, Fat Possum Records tracked Nielson down and signed him.
Despite their warm, bright tones, the first two records take on some heavy themes. Addiction and depression play starring roles. "I wish that I could swim and sleep like a shark does/ I'd fall to the bottom and hide to the end of time," he sings. It's a high-definition, snapshot memory for anyone who hasn't been able to get out of bed for weeks at a time.
"It's not like I sit down and say 'I want to write something relatable,' but on II, I was really laying out a lot of stuff," said Nielson. "On [Multi-Love] I did too, but I wanted this album to be more uplifting, rather than something you would wallow in. I wanted the album to be a more fun kind of mood."
Multi-Love immediately sets itself apart from Nielson's previous work. Though his first two albums have funky traits in their DNA — when was the last time you heard a psych record with breakbeats? — this is the first UMO record that is actively, deeply funky.
"I think the thing that makes us different [from other psych bands] is the influence of funk and soul," said Nielson. "For us to become our own band and set ourselves apart and give ourselves our own identity, it was good for us to lean on the influence of black music and make it a kind of psychedelic R&B."
Like the first two records, Multi-Love revolves around a core theme. But where loneliness dominates on Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II, the third record swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, where too much love creates too many problems.
In his brief, brilliant run as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson has laid it all out, singing his heartache to the exquisite sound of synthesizer and guitar. With the benefit of hindsight, II's "So Good at Being In Trouble" pops out as a defining statement. For his own welfare, this might be a problem. But for an audience wanting a raw songwriter with inexorable talent, it's a formula for lifelong fandom.
"There always seems to be some kind of madness going on. I put together the story of my life through making music, and then I explain my own life back to me and explain my feelings back to myself," said Nielson. "Then sometimes I listen back to my songs and can understand what I've just been through a lot easier. I hope that other people use the music for that, too."