When New Zealand/Portland, Ore. band Unknown Mortal Orchestra released its first track, “Ffunny Ffrends,” it was a sappy jam that made you think, shit man, I really do love my friends, don’t I? Now UMO has come out with II, the band’s, uh, second album. It’s clear that UMO hasn’t lost any of the lo-fi groove that it introduced in 2010, but this time around, listeners may want to ask UMO, where’d all your ffunny ffrends go?
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
The opening track, “From the Sun,” for instance, starts off slowly and surprisingly acoustic, calm and content, but throughout it, singer Ruban Nielson repeats the unnerving phrase, “Isolation can put a gun in your hand.” He’s got the same raspy, bizarre voice heard on the group’s first album, but instead of professing his love of bikes and Jello, now Nielson complains — about exhaustion and loneliness and escaping the sunlight. That said, Nielson doesn’t sound too upset about brooding alone in the shadows; in fact, he offers solitude as a solution, “If you need to.” People suck sometimes, and you just need to get away — he gets you.
But by the next song, “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” Nielson sounds like he can’t even be bothered to get out of bed. “Swim and Sleep” lulls listeners into a hypnotic state, bearing the same resemblance to many of UMO’s older songs, but with a little less rock and a little more Rozerem. In the lyrics, Nielson imagines the possibility of living in the least conscious way possible, and repeats until you find yourself nodding your head slowly in agreement, thinking, yeah, that would be a nice way to live.
“Monki” is when UMO begins to lose it a little bit. It begins with a series of reverberated guitar notes warbling and drifting as if underwater, and you can almost imagine the guys of UMO sitting on some amplifiers, wearing circular sunglasses, high as fuck, plucking a guitar and then passing it, going “whoooooa” after every note. The song crawls along lackadaisically for seven minutes, with some oos thrown in. This is the 5 a.m. of the album, when you’re coming down from whatever and realizing your brain isn’t quite in your head any longer.
Next comes “Dawn,” a minute-long track that beams over the album like the first rays of the sun seeping into your room, warming your face. But this little nugget of serenity — like most nuggets of serenity — only lasts for an instant, and then there’s “Faded in the Morning,” an alarm-clock jolt to the brain that sends UMO into the morning commute, the bustle of a newly awakened world. Nielson sounds exasperated and hoarse as he shrieks the name of the song, moaning, “Sun is rising, stings my eyes, I don’t want to die today.”
But if the first song is about isolation to the point of having a gun in your hand, then perhaps “Faded in the Morning” begins to close the album with a newfound voice of hope — life’s tough, man, but you just gotta keep going. II closes with “Secret Xtians,” a carefree track that kicks off with a rich, hearty acoustic guitar solo and transitions into a funky riff, the classic UMO bass thumping in your chest — music that emulates the heart. One of the verses is composed entirely of nahs, and Nielson sounds like he’s finally reached some sort of mental peace at this point.
II in its entirety feels like a deep sleep, or maybe a dreamlike state as you realize that your night is someone else’s morning. We’re all living different lives on different schedules with varying degrees of happiness and an impossible combination of experiences. None of these have more worth or are inherently better than the other — just chill and let the music play.