V: A Storm in Paradise?

Piano keys are still the heaviest instruments on Earth.

Beurk if you must, but there is no other means to match the rank weight of percussion with the sincerity of melody, sheer and sustained. It is the return of the tempest, announced by the first goblet drops of water over the keyboard.

“Hold on tight,” slices the humid air with a razor falsetto, “’Cause it’s violent after dark in the garden.”

Is it a suggestion? A supplication? Or a prediction? None of the above.

“The Garden” is an answer. A stormcloud from Ruban Nielson’s latest effort as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, V. One among a variegated collection of weather events, an hourlong double album forecasting your next fourteen emotions and showcasing all the places Nielson has made his musical home to answer a simple question.

On the other side of things, Nielson’s physical home has changed constantly. He found punk success among the garages of Auckland, he sought sanctuary from the burnout in the rains of Portland, and he’s recorded just about damn near everywhere on sonic sojourns.

However, the man behind the Unknown Mortal Orchestra always traced his heart back to Hilo, Hawaii; the homeland of his mother and uncles. And after a whirlwind tour on the heels of Sex + Food and the arrest of coronavirus lockdown, Nielson returned home.

Coming home carried a certain weight. Aiding a moving mother and an ailing uncle was a struggle. As he told Apple Music, reconnecting with his heritage brought the past to the present.

“It’s a heavy place for me because there’s just so many things that happened there. I wouldn’t say bittersweet, but it’s just that some things are just so heavy that it’s impossible to enjoy them 100 per cent. There’s just so much weight and history.“


There, the sun shines heavy, just as heavy as the rain falls. But upon reflection, it makes vapor for the creative brume of V. Crudely put: it’s a heaviness that lets flourish some of the best moments in Nielson’s career.

Revisiting Hawaii reconnected Nielson with hapa haole, or “half-white” music, a combination of traditional Hawaiian folk songs with Western musical trends.

Nielson, himself being half-Hawaiian, took to the sonic immediately before returning to contiguous states and building a new studio in Palm Springs. Long-time collaborator Jacob Portrait, and brother and father Kody and Chris, joined him at the edge of the Mojave. There, he transmogrified these Polynesian roots with album-oriented rock, reggae and a midnight gospel funk to blend V.

His music has always been a collage of heavy personal conflict with low-fidelity rock branching out into funk, soul and jazz. Hilo and Palm Springs just provided a cartography for experiences from which each piece could draw upon.

The end product still speaks out of both sides of the speaker. Lyrics for the loners and music for the socialites. It’s conflict as a vibe, music geared to shout “leave me alone!” on one track as it is to plead “don’t leave!” on the next. Even easygoing AOR canticles like “That Life,” “Layla” and “The Beach” are couched by woozy instrumentals and sentimental libretto.

Far from the ancestral folk song or an ambient exploration of Polynesian heritage, “The Garden” is a categorical jam. Brothers Ruban and Kody Nielson combine their powers to open the record in a delightfully sleazy fashion, a perfect balance between Sex + Food and II.

It features the first of many undeniable basslines; the guitars are loose yet unblemished; the riffwork raises the last the third; a synthesizer scatters after each verse; the lyrics rip you apart before taping you up again.

Each verse line splits pace after the eighth syllable, fast then slow, fast then slow. First cutting, then mending. If there is a weakness in this song, it’s the repetitive nature of the main lyric.

She just wandered off the radar head first, brain after
Wretched claws around my jawline, fearful and feline
If you run across her spectre, tell her I miss her
Just a lonely kind of loser, come lose with me…”

– “The Garden”

The idea of a garden has its fingers in the earliest single. During the writing “That Life,” Nielson drew much inspiration from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. As he describes, “In the painting, there was a mixture of crazy stuff going on, representing heaven, earth, and hell,” connecting to life in Palm Springs on the single’s press release.

“It’s an interesting place because almost every day, it’s peaceful and sunny. But most of the Coachella Valley is really windy and noisy and spooky at night… it’s a mix between something really pleasant and something that seems to be hiding something dark.”

Nielson has also sung about this imaginary garden of delights before. “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” from Sex + Food features the line, “We’re growing in a vicious garden,” Nielson sings, “we don’t complain or nothing.”

Nielson’s still not complaining about the Garden. He’s just reminding you about the power of motif.

The last time Nielson dabbled in instrumental motifs happened by way of brass on the super freak funk Multi-Love or via woodwinds on the acid-jungling IC-01 Hanoi. Chris Nielson still makes appearances with his horns, but most of the jazz elements across V are muted or muddled.

And only one instrument comes close to creating a leitmotif: the piano.

Introduced in the first few bars of “The Garden,” the acoustic piano makes an immediate impact. There are brief segues on “Guilty Pleasures” and “The Widow,” as well as the opening notes of “Shin Ramyun.” But a supporting role on “Weekend Run” marks the last of those notions.

Beyond the opener, “In The Rear View” features the best of the piano. The coda tallies nearly a minute, and the song has a charm not unlike a chilled-out cousin to “Puzzles” from Multi-Love. The flute hides in the mix, only coming out to play mud puddle stomps, syncopating on verses and christening a chorus of “love.”

Lyrically, the song emphasizes an important element of what gives his muse its power: memory.

Slowly forgetting all of my memories
What was the point of it all?
I was your favorite, nothing is sacred
All is fair in love”

– “In The Rear View

To study memory is to study geology. Phases stratify in the sediment. And memories are simply the rocks of your past. The paleontologists who uncover them for presentation are the artists.

These fossils are the stories that imbue places, people and paraphernalia. They turn the hotel rooms erotic, the neighborhoods familial and the beaches native.

Even better, Nielson draws out duality to the same concept. Where ocean meets land is both a tourist setting of “The Beach,” and a bloody bank where Nielson muses “I Killed Captain Cook.”

Guilty pleasures calorify indulgence and decadence, as in “Meshuggah” and, er, “Guilty Pleasures.” Love lost lurks as muse or misery alternatively on “Nadja” and “In The Rear View.” Neighborhoods become pilgrimages and prisons.

Such is the emotional context of “Layla” and “Keaukaha.” When Nielson returned to Hawaii, he returned to the song’s neighborhood namesake, the childhood home of his mother and uncles. It was at Keaukaha that Nielson’s family decided to move across the world and the decision he struggled to understand.

“I’ve always felt kind of weird about how one of my uncles came to Portland, and my mom went to New Zealand,” Nielson says.

“I just was always like, ‘Why would you want to leave paradise?’ But for Hawaiians, Hawaii isn’t paradise—it’s just home. And sometimes, home is heavy.”

Once a native village, the Hawaiian Homes Commission transformed Keaukaha into an indigenous allotment. Hardy and damn near inhospitable to farming, the native islanders still transformed Hilo’s easternmost settlement into a vibrant township.

In 1927, part of the land was stripped from the commission in order to build the airport. Squished between airport and ocean, the suburban slice is a symbol of colonial history. In song, Ruban and Kody undo modern suburbia to rediscover ancestral ground.

They soundscape with bass-heavy electric pianos, a synthesizer like a theremin, and a primitive guitar parsing notional phrases. No percussion demarcates the song, leaving listeners in the vapors and smoke of half-melodies. It’s as close to a Steven Gunn cut as Unknown Mortal Orchestra dare come near.

Picture by Juan Ortiz-Arenas

The beauty of “Keaukaha” draws upon more than just memories. It taps into another well of side-projects, the Side-Bs.

Released every Yuletide, these projects function as seasonal cheer and a year-over-year report on Nielson’s headspace. “Keaukaha” most recalls “SB-09.” The 2021 release features fingerpicked melodies, spaced-out rhythm sections and found-sound recordings gathered in an open-air setting. Conversations mumble. A small dog barks. The breeze bristles. The grasshopper minstrels hold court and sing.

It’s not an indelible listening experience, to be sure. But if “SB-09” is the attention of an idle mind, then “Keaukaha,” if not V at large, is that meditative dig. And while personal heaviness can’t all be attributed to the building of an airport, a colonial legacy still forms a socioeconomic bedrock.

“My family never had any money,” remarked Nielson, “and a lot of my family, they just do regular jobs—anything from working for a moving company, being a house painter or builder, or scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.”

It’s from this bedrock that songs like “That Life,” and “Weekend Run” come into play. Both examine different ends of the wealth spectrum. But they also seem the most disconnected songs on the album, sounding off thoughts in two directions.

For one, they work as energy extensions of the 2016 single, “First World Problem.” A confirmation of Nielson’s preternatural ability to transform memes or common expressions into music. For two, they function as proto-numbers before Nielson and co. really nailed down that duality they desired for V.

Innocuous guitar tones and sing-along lyrics maintain a daydreamer’s ease. However, that slight tonal difference is enough to stick out like a sore thumb from the muted sensation that carries the rest of the collection. Having a genuine moment or a single on this record is not wrong. Their presence only reveals the nature of double albums: expansive to be expansive, all-encompassing as to leave no corner of the map untouched.

But ask me in conversation and I would be willing to put down dollars that culling “Weekend Run,” “That Life” and “Guilty Pleasures” from the record would yield a tighter, yet still venturous 48-minute exhibition.

Shit, if the “Keaukaha>Captain Cook>Drag” suite wasn’t baked together like a crusted cake, I would argue that reorganizing it as “Drag>Keaukaha>Captain Cook” would do more for allowing the record to end on solid footing. As it stands, V ends on a question, not a capstone: are there storms in paradise?

Play the album forward or backward, and you will find an answer.

Producer: Self-Produced

Label: Jagjaguwar

Genre: Psychedelic Rock, Indie Folk

Release: March 17th, 2023


1. The Garden

2. Guilty Pleasures

3. Meshuggah

4. The Widow

5. In The Rear View

6. That Life

7. Layla

8. Shin Ramyun

9. Weekend Run

10. The Beach

11. Nadja

12. Keaukaha

13. I Killed Captain Cook

14. Drag

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About BenJamsToo

An insane man moonlighting as a respectable member of society from Portland, Oregon. A rock ‘n’ roller since his mother first spun The Police’s “Roxanne,” Ben is a lover of all things rock, soul, funk, jazz, blues, electronic and hip-hop. Perhaps it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like: most gangsta rap, country-western and modern metal disagrees with his stomach. Once upon a time, a friend told him to write about music. So he started doing that under the title of a Willie Bobo cover by Santana. Now he wonders about what Stu McKenzie has for breakfast, why John Congleton is the best damn record producer this side of the millennium and just how Common came to be his favourite hip-hop star. He’s been working on that last one for nearly a decade now. No answers yet.