The cover art for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut LP in 2011 featured a photo of a multi-tiered silver structure that looked like a spaceship. As band founder Ruban Nielson explained at the time, it was an image of a Spomenik, one in a handful of Yugoslavian monuments constructed in the 1960s and 1970s in honor of World War II. The band’s sophomore album, II, again reaches for an image from the past, this one of Janet Farrar, a practicing British Wiccan who has written books on witchcraft and the occult. In the photo, Farrar brandishes a sword, her eyes are downcast, and she’s naked except for a sheer tunic. It’s a more human cover, both in the literal sense of featuring a person and because that person appears vulnerable. The nakedness has something to do with this, but it’s more evidenced by the idea of a lone figure leading a sad-looking solitary charge.
Nielson has two companions on this album—bassist Jacob Portrait and drummer Greg Rogove—but he spends the majority of II singing about his loneliness; his first observation on the album is “Isolation can put a gun in your hand.” The words are bleak, but the percussion gives an upbeat shake and electric guitars happily splash around in psychedelic waves. On “Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark),” he longs for an empty head and a hiding place on the ocean floor: “I’d fall to the bottom/And I’d hide till the end of time/In that sweet, cold darkness.” While he says this, a drum bounces along, guitars alternate between power chords and arpeggios and a surprisingly spry bassline wiggles underneath. Add to that Nielson’s gentle, wistful voice, and he sounds like a pretty happy sad guy.
Nielson produced both of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s albums, and his ’60s and ’70s psych-rock reference points remain the same here as on the debut—a little Pink Floyd, a little Beatles. Those sounds shine through in the instrumental winddowns, Nielson’s shy vocals hiding beneath layered echoes of his own voice and the dry-mouthed pah of the drums. But there’s also a bit of Thee Oh Sees-style garage rock in the guitar crunches on “No Need For A Leader.” And standout track “So Good At Being In Trouble” starts with a deep guitar riff that oddly brings to mind the opening of 1990s R&B jam “Too Close” before filling in the blanks between the lolling guitar lines with a repeated, quick-footed drum part. If any hipster rappers out there are taking requests, please sample this.
Nielson’s greatest strength is his ability to build songs from subtle foundations. The album leans psychedelic rock, but instead of dissolving into a murky haze on every song, he pays attention to his layers. He’ll work a strong melodic line while playing around it with texture, whether it’s the grimy bass part that closes out “Faded In The Morning,” his falsetto closeup on “The Opposite Of Afternoon” or the pretty, finger-picked acoustic guitar start of “From The Sun.” Concentrating on one layer doesn’t always yield interesting results, as seen on the all-synthesizer alien landing of “Dawn.” But more often on the album’s 10 tracks than not, Nielson keeps the balance, giving each part equal time in the foreground and using understatement to his advantage.