New Zealand-born musician Ruban Nielson’s story starts typically enough: married-with-kids dude in a buzz band meets an intriguing young woman while touring abroad. But that’s when the tale becomes far less predictable, resulting in a relationship whose contours are about as unlikely as they come: a long-distance bond over email blossoms into accidental polyamory alongside Nielson’s wife, Jenny, before mutating into one (mostly) happy family, complete with two young children in Portland. That is, until the new lover’s visa runs out — twice — and she’s forced to go back home for good.
The emotional effects of this series of events sit at the heart of Multi-Love, the addictively catchy third album from Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra, out this week. For someone who broke into American indie rock behind a mask of total anonymity (a common tactic in the early 2010s), Nielson lays himself bare on Multi-Love’s title track with lines like, “Multi-love has got me on my knee/ We were one, then become three,” and “Checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room.”
In addition to being one of the year’s best psychedelic records, Multi-Love may just be the first album to honestly explore the complications of an increasingly common relationship arrangement that remains both fetishized and taboo. What makes Multi-Love so illuminating is its rejection of polyamory’s portrayal in mainstream pop culture up until this point. TV shows of both the reality and scripted varieties (HBO’s Big Love, TLC’s Sister Wives) have explored Mormon polygamy, while Showtime detailed various polyamorous scenarios through sexual drama, mostly, on the docu-series Polyamory: Married and Dating.
Even Nielson’s friends proved susceptible to poly’s reputation as a free-loving orgy, which stands in opposition to the reality of the situation: “65 percent of poly families would choose to legalize their unions if they could,” Slate pointed out, two years ago. As Pitchfork notes in a recent profile, Nielson said one pal responded to his admittance of the three-way relationship with the following comment: “That’s rad, man. Maybe you can go to bed with both of them.” Instead, Nielson bristled and told his friend, “I wish I wasn’t in this emotionally terrifying situation.”
“Think about the two most serious relationships in your life so far, and then experiencing them simultaneously,” Nielson offered as an explanation. “It makes you wonder: How much can a human being deal with emotionally? How well-adjusted are you?”
Instead of highlighting what makes consensual non-monogamy different, Nielson spends the bulk of Multi-Love normalizing it. Atop an impressive sheen of guitar funk akin to Tame Impala, he makes poly sound just as damning as any other kind of romance. Beyond the title track, Multi-Love sounds at times like a document of hurting and being hurt by someone you love; at a handful of others, it plays like a rumination on society’s broader flaws (particularly closing track “Puzzles,” which discusses racial “othering” in America). Those who do not know of Nielson’s deliberate intentions to capture his newfound experimentation in real time while creating the record may not even realize this is an album about polyamory. Sly lines like, “Did she want him or want to be him?” (from album highlight “Stage or Screen”), take on new meaning for those who know the backstory, particularly after you’ve read interviews where Nielson discusses the jealousy inflicted and felt by all parties involved.
First single “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” was written the first time their lover left, to work on a photo project in the Peruvian rainforest. But with lines like, “I’m kinda busy, could you call back again?/ I’m sure you’ll come back/ Till then I can’t keep checking my phone,” the song could easily apply to any kind of long-distance relationship. Its groove scratches an itch you didn’t know you had, much like Of Montreal in the band’s mid-’00s prime — and perhaps like the young woman Nielson brought into his marriage, either to save it or to ruin it, for most of 2014.