Unknown Mortal Orchestra: V

Ruban Nielson, a meticulous indie rock auteur, was born into a family of musicians. As a young boy, he would watch his parents play gigs at resorts all across the Pacific, at once aware of the grotesquery of the tourist industry and enjoying the pleasures of island life—especially its music. Following the exuberant vulnerability of 2015’s Multi-Love and 2018’s Sex & Food, V, which was partially recorded in Hilo, Hawaii, figures as Neilson’s return to his past, and to the gorgeous sonics and breezy sadness of a childhood spent in paradise. Accordingly, there are big, ripe melodies that burst with bittersweet juice and are arguably among the best Neilson has ever written. But so much of this double album is lost in the fog of his production style, which, in its attempts to avoid being excessive, comes off as evasive and overly fussy. It ultimately makes V feel like a long, rummy sigh.

Neilson’s songs have always been at odds with the way he chooses to record them. The faux-fi production he helped to forge—sweet vocals sung through grimy mic filters, songs squeezed with ear-popping compression—became one of the defining aesthetic markers of the indie rock of the last decade; the clipped and redlining drum sound of a UMO type beat will telegraph 2010s bedroom rock to future generations in the same way gated reverb connotes the megahits of the 1980s. Neilson’s best songs of the past few years, like Multi-Love’s title track, the flashing disco of “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” and even his cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” work with these restrictions by pressing beyond them, as if their funkiness and charisma couldn’t be confined to the basement in which they’d been recorded.

To maintain this balance, the songs themselves either have to be strong and cohesive, embodying some kind of emotional urgency, or else fully embrace their own peripatetic nature and pursue vibes at all costs. On V, Neilson often hits upon a great idea—the brilliantly constructed melody and pleasingly stupid lyrics of 9-to-5 jam “Weekend Run”—only to stall out or double down. The choppy bossa nova that kicks off “The Widow” seems to offer limitless possibilities, but the instrumental song doesn’t seem to know what to do with them and settles for a bland verse-chorus-verse arrangement, begging for a vocal track. The knotty melody of “Guilty Pleasures,” and the elegant way it resolves into a dusky chorus, is nearly blotted out because it sounds like it’s being played on a turntable with an unbalanced tonearm. It feels perverse, or at least very un-punk, to wish that the guy who made “Ffunny Ffrends” would clean up his new songs, but the patina of authenticity the production is meant to provide is wearing thin.

What makes V particularly frustrating is the knowledge of how good it could have been if Neilson had tightened the tracklist and given the remaining songs the sunlight they deserve. “Meshuggah” pits a slurping bassline against a bit of late-night tuxedo funk that lightly recalls Sam Sparro’s “Black and Gold,” while Neilson rips a sticky, questioning guitar solo through the middle of “The Garden,” a mid-’80s Don Henley pastiche that cooly shifts to absorb the outburst. The hapa-haole ballad “I Killed Captain Cook” winningly retells the story of the colonialist’s untimely end in Kealakekua Bay, and the playing is intricate and lovely, flecked with foam and softly swinging. Neilson’s vocals are stunning, full of brass and wavering like a muted trumpet. It’s startling to be reminded how good of a voice he has.

His strengths are even more evident on “That Life.” In the lyrics, he’s standing near the pool at a resort, just outside the scene, surveying the tourists sipping cocktails; jaguars lurk nearby; the next blow-up is just around the corner. For the duration of the song, though, things are at peace. The guitar makes it all work, the way it flicks between cheery and mournful, sometimes holding both at once and frequently spilling outside the meter like gin over the glass of a guy trying to carry three drinks back to the cabana. “That Life” is just a slice of something, barely even a moment, but it’s loaded with unspoken sadness. It’s among the very best songs Neilson has ever written.

Neilson’s gift for melody is undeniable, and many of the tracks here have a strange tendency to seem more interesting once the record’s over. Like humidity, the music can seep into your walls and soak them without your being aware of it. What this means is that V is often more affecting as a memory than it is as a present encounter, a notion that dovetails quite nicely with the nostalgia at the album’s core, sure, but also suggests that a bit more presence would’ve better served V’s songs. Whether intentional or not, Neilson’s characteristic haze makes the album comes across as self-conscious and blurry, as if he doesn’t want to align himself too closely with the glossy AM gold sounds that artists like the War on Drugs and Tame Impala have embraced more openly—and that the songs here so obviously draw from. Run through that obfuscatory filter, and absent the verve and pop of UMO’s previous work, V can feel remote and insular without the charm of being coy. There’s just enough shown here to leave you craving a more direct experience of the world Neilson is spinning.

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Unknown Mortal Orchestra: V