It can be difficult for those who came of age before the 1980s to find the sound of soul in a synthesizer (just ask my dad). But the rest of us know it’s possible: look no further than Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” propelled by the all-digital funk of the Roland TR-808 drum machine. And Ruban Nielson, the mastermind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, knows it, too.
Nelson wrote and recorded the new album, “Multi-Love” in his Portland, Oregon basement during sessions lasting long into the early morning, eventually calling on his brother Kody Nielson Riley Geare, Jacob Portrait and his father, jazz trumpeter Chris Nielson, to fill out the arrangements. Although “Multi-Love” has been promoted as a sort of audio diary of his Ruban Nielson’s experiment with polyamory, you would never know there was any concept behind it other than a quest for soulful songs and the heartfelt expression of emotions.
Deploying a palette of synthesized keyboards, drum machines and bright, versatile falsetto, the songs call back to some of the 1980s’ great purveyors of heartbreak-with-a-beat, from A Flock of Seagulls to Split Enz, especially in the title track and on “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty.” There’s a good helping of “Raspberry Beret”-era Prince here, too; check out the psychedelic swirl of “The World is Crowded” and “Necessary Evil.”
The greatest heroes of disco and New Wave triumphed when they were able to combine technical perfection with a dab of that special sauce known as human frailty, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra aims for the same recipe here. And while the turbulent story of Nielson’s polyamorous adventure has been told elsewhere, the emotional record of it–this record–provides as much drama and detail as most of us need. Is it complicated? Sure. But it’s fun, too.
Buzzy Jackson's newest book is "The Inspirational Atheist: Wise Words on the Wonder and Meaning of Life" (Penguin/Plume). She writes for the Boston Globe and on her own blog at BuzzyJackson.com. Buzzy lives in Boulder, Colorado and she believes that, some day, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey will get back together.
They just have to.