Following the demise of incendiary psychedelic punk band The Mint Chicks towards the end of the last decade, band co-founder Ruban Nielson left New Zealand and sought solace in Portland, Oregon. It was here where he recorded and anonymously published his first single under the moniker Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Ffunny Ffriends”, a sunny and optimistic psychedelic pop tune that would set the precedent for the group’s first two albums. Their last effort, 2015’s Multi Love, was without a doubt their best yet, adding elements of funk and psychedelic soul music to their brittle psychedelic rock sound, making for an exotic and eccentric concept album which revolved around a polyamorous relationship Nielson was in at the time. Sex & Food arrives almost three years on, and sees Nielson and the band again looking inward, in the process making something of a broader commentary on the anxious state of the world and the addictions people develop in trying to escape it. This is an album which sees the group moving deeper into a disco-influenced sound while still retaining the warm, crunchy psychedelic rock production of their previous records.
The first taste of this new album came with the “American Guilt” single, and it was a sound quite unlike anything the group had produced before, as Nielson challenged himself to make a rock song – bursting in with fiery, brittle guitars that come off with a touch of Hendrix with a stoner rock edge, coming through with a thunderous sound all through the song’s running time. It sets up some of the album’s themes, with paranoia and deception rampant – lines like “tape over the camera” and “land of the expensive,” referring to American greed and excess, the lyrics delivered as curt, blunt hooks. The song is somewhat indicative of one of this band’s weaknesses – that of their sometimes uninteresting song structures, one that still crops up on occasion throughout this album – this song is essentially the same part repeated three times with little variation. But in the end, its distinctive and intense sound, coupled with flashy guitar playing do make up for it and make for an attention-grabbing first single. But if “American Guilt” grabbed the public’s attention, second single “Not in Love We’re Just High” went by fairly unnoticed, and perhaps with reason. Musically and emotionally the complete opposite of the former, it is for the most part based around little more than pulsing, droopy Rhodes chords and Nielson’s quivering vocal, only really taking off near the very end as the drums kick into gear and Nielson passionately delivers the pessimistic title lyric. Just from its title alone, one can infer the song’s message, in the way that drugs affect love and relationships, a theme that is also touched on throughout the album. Tucked away in the album’s penultimate spot, the song is very much a deep cut and a mood piece, and was a truly baffling choice for a single, but given the chance, it is definitely a grower.
Really, neither of these two singles are very representative of the album, but they are, in a way, the two extremes between which most of the album’s songs sit. The way the first five songs are structured implies some kind of a contained mini-suite or song cycle, as the songs ebb and flow accordingly, kicking off with the brief stuttering, chopped up instrumental of “A God Called Hubris”, before jumping straight in to “Major League Chemicals”, which skips between the bright, hyper choruses and the darker, more paranoid verses which depict someone abusing hard drugs as a means of escaping themselves, setting up one of the album’s main themes of addiction. “Ministry of Alienation” follows as the comedown, with a hazy, sitar-driven instrumental that complements the themes of disillusionment with the modern socio-political climate, the development of technology and the internet – how it has affected our capacity and way of thinking, as highlighted by the memorable line, “my thinking is done by your machine.” The following “Hunnybee” is a song Nielson wrote to his daughter, with a very clean, disco-infused groove and one of the album’s catchiest tunes, with staccato violin and funky guitars, as Nielson seemingly sings to his daughter warning her of the dangers of the world and everyday life, but not to ignore the positives either. “Chronos Feasts on His Children”, which would seem to close out this suite, pairs some of the album’s starkest lyrics with a pretty acoustic guitar recalling II (2013)’s opener “From the Sun”, drawing on the ancient Greek allegory of Cronus, who was afraid of being overcome by his sons and devoured them all, acting as perhaps a parallel with older generations being resistant to change, while “American Guilt” caps it off with a dreamy ambient outro, like a brief moment of narcotic bliss before launching back into the album proper.
The rest of the album continues to build on these themes and explore them from different perspectives, kicking off with the sparse, acoustic-driven slow jam “The Internet of Love”. A song very brief in lyrical detail, with each verse only two lines each, it depicts someone in an online relationship, someone lonely, for whom this may be the only love they have. It is also the most positive depiction of the internet and technology on the album, not being a direct condemnation or criticism of it, but simply showing what it may be like for someone who at least has something to gain from it. “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays”, thematically, may be the most significant song on here as it brings together and summarises its key points. While drugs are the main mode, referenced with the line, “taking all kinds of shit,” it also seems to refer to the social habits and cycles people become addicted to, which may be far less overt than any actual drug. Unfortunately, musically, the song doesn’t come off at all, with a clinical and sour disco groove in the verses which sounds like an inferior re-write of Multi Love’s “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”, only really coming together in the somewhat robotic, but more focused chorus, which is definitely boosted by the violin in the outro. Again, the more catchy, upbeat song is balanced out with the downbeat “This Doomsday”. It’s perhaps the album’s moodiest song, based around a sparse trip-hop beat and gloomy acoustic guitar, going into apocalyptic and religious themes. By the time the uptempo “How Many Zeros” comes in, it feels as though the energy has been sapped from the record, as the song has a kind of apathetic, indifferent feeling, mirroring its themes of hedonism and excess.
The album is brought to a close with two of its sparsest, most intimate moments, first the aforementioned, warm but distant and bleary mood piece “Not in Love We’re Just High” and followed by “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” – the album’s most personal moment. It brings the album to a close on a regretful and melancholic note, as Nielson sings about missing former friends who ostracised him when he would not embrace their self-destructive behaviour over a fittingly moody and rainy instrumental. However, there is a glimmer of hope in the refrain, in the re-affirmation that their behaviour is not only hurting themselves, but affects him as well. The song works well as a closer because it ties the themes of the album back to the personal, showing how other people’s addictions have hurt and affected him personally as well.
On the eve of the release of Sex & Food, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson declared it to be their best effort yet, “a mixture of everything UMO is about,” and one can see where he’s coming from – the record is in many ways, at least production-wise, the group’s most refined and sonically accomplished record to date. However, while it is a solid effort overall, it’s hard to see it as their best, with the songwriting overall not on the same level as on Multi Love and brought down by a number of uninspired moments. Nielson himself stated that the themes of the album simply came from his feelings and thus perhaps weren’t directly intended as a commentary on the themes mentioned above, but simply as a record to make people feel good and help them get through the day. As with much of today’s music, though, it is hard not to see it as at least a product of the current social climate. Whichever way it may be taken, Sex & Food makes for another respectable entry into the Unknown Mortal Orchestra catalogue.