In an interview with New Musical Express, Ruban Nielson of Kiwi psychedelic-rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) said he wanted the band’s fourth full-length LP, “Sex and Food,” to exist outside of the overwhelmingly “political space” the world was becoming. “Anything political which made its way in would be accidental.”
While “Sex and Food” doesn’t propagate any specific politics, it certainly captures Nielson’s anxiety through its lyrical appreciation of life’s simplicity amid the tumult of an overwhelmingly political world.
The album opens with a fuzzy instrumental: “A God Called Hubris.” It’s a jaunty, 41-second track that boasts the quintessential musical elements of UMO’s discography. The stuttering drum beats, textured layering of ‘70s-era synthesizers and otherworldly feeling that the songs evoke as they bleed into one another through occasional crossfades and an overall tonal cohesion.
“A God Called Hubris” is an excellent warm up for UMO fans and introduction for new listeners. It serves as a prelude to the album’s second track, “Major League Chemicals,” which ruptures through the previous softer sounds with its aggressive opening guitar riff and Nielson’s signature distorted vocals. The most intriguing element of “Major League Chemicals” is Nielson’s vocal performance, which sounds more like growling than singing. This pleasant production effect appears in popular UMO tracks such as “Puzzles” and “Ffunny Ffrends.” The first two tracks impressively capture the album’s mood range by intermittently sounding sweet and, at other moments, desperately restless. Quick interludes within songs are performed with such aggression that the songs sound panicked. While these songs are representative of UMO’s musicality, “Sex and Food” is in no way a tired or typical album.
Nielson develops UMO’s repertoire with stirring new lyricism and undulation between anxiety and celebration. There are groovy danceable tracks like “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” and “Hunnybee,” in which Nielson croons about his love for his daughter. But there are also upbeat sad songs, like the penultimate track, “Not in Love We’re Just High,” a high energy number about realizing that one’s desire for a feeling outweighs the realization of that feeling. The track’s energy comes from the synthesizer’s persistent throb and the song’s dizzy climax into a mixture of heavy drums and Nielson’s fast belting of the lyrics “We’re not in love/We’re just half way out of our minds/And we hang out high as kites.” This vulnerability proves to be the album’s greatest strength and manifests through a balanced combination of contemplative lyricism and dense mixing work.
Nielson is known for his production abilities, but this skill becomes clearer after each listen. It took me a few plays to notice the light humming layered over the drum snares of “How Many Zeros,” or the subtle snaps in “Not in Love We’re Just High.” While I found the album’s repeated ricochets from beaming to bummed out evocative of the album’s lyrical meditation on life’s dynamism, others may find the album’s tracklist incohesive. This, coupled with UMO’s genre blurring, disco-inspired, psychedelic-alternative rock, may bewilder people.
Political themes do “accidentally” appear in “Sex and Food” through songs like the slower-tempoed “Ministry of Alienation” and the gritty “American Guilt.” In the former, UMO tackles palpable political discomfort by discussing “fake democracies.” The chorus coos: “My thinking is done by your machine/Can’t escape the 20th century/Handing in my resignation/At the ministry of alienation.” It’s a haunting and slightly too-familiar representation of how devastating it can be to be disillusioned with one’s republic.
“American Guilt” grapples with a similar sentiment, but focuses less so on the somber and more on the apprehensive. In the chorus, Nielson repeatedly howls, “Oh no, here it comes, the American guilt.” The song’s other lyrics suggest the speaker’s almost nauseous response to the realization that their safety is secured by the suffering of others abroad.
The album’s punchier political ideas are balanced by its tangential storytelling and intermittent lullabies like “Chronos Feasts on His Children,” which turns classic mythological horror into sonic splendor. The track recalls Saturn’s efforts to consume his spawn in order to thwart a prophecy that they would be his undoing. Essentially, “Chronos feasts on his children like turning mango flesh.” These images are frightening, and one may think the song would be, too. But because the lyrics are sung so sweetly, the horror dissipates. Images of devoured flesh are overcome by the song’s “springtime flower beds” and “dreams so wonderful.”
“Chronos Feasts on His Children” exemplifies Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s ability to bury difficult ideas — political and otherwise — within inviting sounds. The album’s final track, “If You’re Going to Break Yourself,” ends “Sex and Food” on a compelling, reflective note. The track sleepily wanders in and out of its chorus and, like the rest of the album, gives off the impression that the album is a collection of successful improvisations. But this spontaneity and unpredictability contains such deliberate gestures, through production and lyricism, that “Sex and Food” feels far from thoughtless. It is a fun, poignant exploration of the fretful disposition that has unfortunately become characteristic of the modern era — and is another achievement for Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Grade: 4.5/5 stars