Unknown Mortal Orchestra, primarily the creative vehicle of founder Ruban Nielson, is an unconventionally psychedelic band. Many of the things you’d imagine floating a psych rock tag cloud — “sprawling,” “trippy,” “open-ended,” “whimsical” — largely don’t apply. Nielson is a disciplined songwriter, and the carefully-constructed sound that unspools on II is streamlined, deliberately deployed and, oftentimes, gentle. In this psychedelia Venn diagram, the overlap is largely in the details: off-kilter production effects (vocal and guitar delay, occasional wah, slight panning); wispy vocals; a sense of groove. Slight nods and tactful sonic cues rather than “hey man, far out!” indulgence. Working in this sweet spot, Nielson has produced a loose batch of great songs.
II starts at a canter — the opening three tracks are fizzy and swinging, not quite nosing beyond mid-tempo. “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” an album standout, is irresistible, the chugging backbeat paired with Nielson’s deft fingerpicking like a slightly caffeinated version of “Blackbird.” “So Good at Being in Trouble” is sly slo-mo funk-soul with a wonderful ascending chorus melody and a pleasantly stark spaciousness. The back half of II spirals out into some more loose, expansive explorations. These aren’t wildly heady jams, though. “No Need for a Leader” is Stooges-lite, rollicking and taut. A drowsy, loping ballad, “Monki” unfolds over seven minutes with a sultry, matching guitar and vocal melody and ringing, delay-heavy production. It’s a testament to Nielson’s concision and attention to detail as a songwriter that a tedious-on-paper “seven-plus minute long slice of psychedelia” doesn’t succumb to the obvious pitfalls; rather than an aimless or psuedo-trippy walkabout, “Monki” is a sweet and satisfying saunter.
The almost anesthetizing warmth of listening to II, though, neatly camouflages what are some distinctly foreboding lyrics. In “From the Sun,” Nielson sings that “isolation can put a gun in your hand”; in “Swim and Sleep” there’s the “sweet cold darkness” and “dreams… constantly melting away”; “No Need for a Leader” has the line, “something wicked this way comes/ we don’t like to fall, but when we go down, we lose it all.” This is not the stuff of peppermints and rainbows. Despite the sometimes dark and solitary lyrical themes, though, II is an irrepressibly giddy outing — a groove-y, kinda shaggy, endlessly hummable set of songs.