This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Favorite Tracks: “Hunnybee,” “Not in Love We’re Just High,” “If You’re Going to Break Yourself,” “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays,” “The Internet of Love (That Way)”
Despite its name, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s latest release is not concerned with life’s simple pleasures. Rather, SEX & FOOD finds songwriter Ruban Nielson exploring the excess of technology and the harrowing isolation that lies therein. The result is an intergalactic trip that’s mercurial, dense, and, at times, really fun.
Enthusiasts always seem to qualm when an artist moves in a more commercial direction, but the same cannot be said for the progression of Nielson’s material. If MULTI-LOVE was UMO dipping its toe into the mainstream, SEX & FOOD finds them plunging back into the dark pools of obscurity from which they originated. It’s a sort of reverse evolution, a recoiling from conventionality that displays boldness on Nielsen’s behalf. Parts are rudimentary, an abstraction of ideas and concepts like stars that are constantly formed and destroyed on the edges of the universe. In this space, Nielson delves into the shocking and disturbing truths of our current world-state, losing friends to drugs, and how the hell he tries to cope with it all.
“Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” jives along with enough energy to fit in as a dance track, but its lyrics reveal a darker underbelly to the bop: “I’m caught beyond the feeling I won’t live far beyond these years / We’re growing in a vicious garden.” Images like these serve as constant reminders that you can’t dance away your problems—they’re always there, right underneath the psychedelic groove. Mid-album track “Hunnybee” is an instant standout. It’s got an ebullient beat that uplifts you out of the sonic stupor and into a headspace that feels refreshingly positive. A techno ode to his young daughter, Nielson manages to balance that permeating feeling of uneasiness with hope, crooning, “Age of paranoia / Don’t be such a modern stranger / Oh angel.” The overall effect is a catchy track with an earworm hook that will easily work its way onto your summer playlist.
While funk is prevalent on this album, we get a taste of otherworldly folk as well. “Chronos Feasts on His Children” is a sparse acoustic number that could oddly enough be mistaken for a CARRIE & LOWELL outtake, except for the fact that its lyrics paint a much darker, morbid picture, with none of Sufjan Stevens’ nostalgia or melancholy. Instead, Nielson cooly relates the savage allegory to modern society, how old generations are unable to accept the change that comes with the new.
For all the radical leaps forward, there are the mishaps that project the album into further obscurity. The snarling “American Guilt” and assaulting “Major League Chemicals” are two prominent examples, both challenging to sit through and offering little reward. “Ministry of Alienation” serves a saturation of synths and a constant feeling of paranoia, with unsettling lines like, “No one wants to fuck the ugly robot.” Tracks like this make listening feel masochistic—it’s a depressing journey to take when there’s no glimmer of relief.
We get some closure on “If You’re Going to Break Yourself,” which sinks like a stone after an album that, up until this point, has been drifting through the cosmos. It’s by far the most grounded track on the album, poignant and honest with a repetitiveness akin to “So Good at Being in Trouble,” UMO’s hit off their album II. Its beauty is in its monotony, urging the listener to sink into the murkiness and ruminate in it.
As Joan Didion observed in her essay “On Morality”: “When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something . . . but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.” Penned in 1965, it would appear then that we have been in a pit of despair for the past 50 years, an influx of electronics making our desires feel more and more entitled. It is precisely this realization that fuels SEX & FOOD, and it’s probably too late to save ourselves from the dysfunction of society and its resulting consequences. But if we embrace it, if we join the fashionable madmen, there are pockets of hope in which we truly find the spirit to dance.