It’s 3 AM, and I’m wide awake. I’m sitting at the desk in my basement apartment gazing at the blinking cursor in my word processor, under the harsh glare of artificial light. I’ve just made another pot of coffee. It looks like this is going to be another all-nighter. Let me put on II. Perhaps I’m in just the right frame of mind for it now. I remember the couple times I listened to it in the afternoon, in broad daylight, I enjoyed the album’s sonic nods to Zeppelin and the Beatles, and how Ruban Nielson’s guitar work alternates between gliding and grating in a marriage of beauty and violence like the one depicted by the naked, sword-wielding woman on the album’s cover. Now, though, at this hour, I understand entirely what Nielson meant when he told Pitchfork that II is a “lonely” album about “staying awake at night.” The album moves as though hypnotized, moving simply because some incorporeal force compels it to do so. Sometimes it moves in small circles. Other times, it charges forward headlong. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut boasted a similar sort of carefree aimlessness, but it came across as merely cute in the context of that record’s joyful psych-pop. By contrast, the trance-like pace of II serves to reinforce the album rather than weaken it.
Think about the last time you stayed awake for much longer than you should have. Remember how your thoughts seemed to become fuzzy and out-of-focus? How reality and fantasy blended together to create images and concepts that only seem to make sense? II is full of those moments, interspersed with moments of strange, dreamlike lucidity. Rambunctious second-side opener “No Need For A Leader” chugs along in a burst of frantic energy, eventually losing itself in its guitar-solo outro. This leads into an additional 45 seconds of amorphous guitar noodling that opens (and later closes) the endlessly catchy, Beatlesque jam “Monki.” If any song overstays its welcome, it only adds to the hypnotic, insomniac effect of the album.
The album alternates between hazy and semi-conscious to frantic and lucid, and every combination thereof. Beginning with the straightforward melancholic bounce of “From the Sun,” the first side of the record moves to the deliberate 4/4 thud of the morbidly beautiful “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark,)” to the Temptations-like groove of “So Good at Being In Trouble,” to the Zeppelin skronk of “One At A Time.” Yet despite the wild variations in energy, the tempo doesn’t change as drastically between songs as the production leads us to believe. The passage of time itself is altered, such that the 4-minute “So Good At Being In Trouble” sounds just as long as the 5.5 minute nugget “The Opposite of Afternoon.”
And if the first side of the record finds Nielson falling deeper into a bleary, insomniac stupor, the second side finds him attempting to fight his way out of it. The one-two punch of “No Need For A Leader” and “Monki” finds him losing and regaining focus multiple times within the same song, before taking a breather with the Numanian instrumental “Dawn,” which manages to stand remarkably well on its own merits. Following that, a blast of drums kicks off the album’s most clear-headed cut, “Faded In The Morning,” a flash of passionate fuzz-rock that evokes the Beatles’ similarly titled “Good Morning, Good Morning,” only to fall back into a sleep-deprived delirium via the spiraling chord progression of closer “Secret Xtians.” Throughout the album, Nielson’s vocals are delivered through a hazy filter, always sounding immediate, but incorporeal, like sounds from the real world as heard in a dream.
In fact, the Courtney Love-endorsed “Swim and Sleep” provides the best analogy for the album’s strangely fitting aesthetic. A commonly-believed myth says that sharks sleep while swimming because if they don’t swim, they will drown. It may not be true, but if you were a shark and somebody told you that, would you risk stopping to see if they were right? “Being alive is quite tiring,” Nielson said of the song, “Sometimes you just want to do something to give yourself a break– to go somewhere between being alive and dead, where you get into bed and you just can’t escape your dreams.” II exists on that threshold, between life and death, consciousness and sleep, day and night, fantasy and reality, beauty and violence, where thesis and antithesis blur and become indistinguishable from one another, until all that’s left is the synthesis which, as Hegel said, moves us all through history. Like a shark, or perhaps like time itself, II moves not out of a desire to reach a destination, but out of sheer necessity, fearing what may happen if it ever were to stop, leaving us no choice but to swim along with it. And when it finally does stop, it compels us to hit play again and keep going.