A mixed bag of hits and very near misses. In 2015 Unknown Mortal Orchestra seemed unstoppable. They were a group that could do no wrong; who crossed over to a mainstream success that levelled with their critical acclaim. 2015’s Multi–Love was something emotionally endearing and warm which managed to be fresh and accessible whilst still sounding completely out there. Sex & Food, the band’s fourth release, sounds like Ruban Nielson unleashed, free to explore whichever avenues he pleased.
Lead single ‘American Guilt’ gives you the impression that Sex & Food would be an album of anger and frustration – UMO gone heavy. Anyone who has caught the band live will know they aren’t afraid of this or publicly shredding. It sounds chaotic and dirty, a song that tares up the space its filling. It’s the stand-out song from the album and a very strong single for the band in general. To some, (myself included) the idea of this direction is very welcome, the notion has however divided opinions online. ‘American Guilt’ is a unique beast and is a sound that won’t be found again on the album. Sex & Food is a familiar sounding record for the band, which revisits many of the musical ideas and themes of their previous releases.
There’s much to love on Sex & Food and much to be missed. ‘American Guilt’ is where the band push their sound towards something new. The rest of the album is more an exploration down old avenues. It’s like the band want to communicate something but they aren’t quite sure what. Like the times UMO are trying to reflect on the record, Sex & Food can sound confused and unsure of itself. The record mostly keeps to the psychedelic sounds of II and the more synth-based, dance-inspired sounds of Multi–Love. It ends up sounding slightly like bonus material from these albums stuck together. It’s not bad material by any means, it just doesn’t have the same excitement and spark that you would expect from an UMO album.
Bitching aside, there is solace to be found in the album. The glitchy ‘Not in Love We’re Just High’ is excellent and the feel-good ‘Hunnybee’ has a riff that’s incredibly smooth and cool. ‘Chronos Feasts on His Children’ has a riff that almost sounds like a revisit to ‘From the Sun’ off their album II. ‘Ministry of Alienation’ features a brief saxophone solo, a moment so fitting and discordant it’s upsetting it lasts for roughly six seconds. ‘The Internet of Love (That Way)’ is picturesque and dreamy and the way it bleeds perfectly from ‘American Guilt’ wraps you up in it tighter.
Much of Sex & Food is voiced through Nielson’s guitar playing. Multi–Love was heavy in its electronics and synthesisers but wielding a guitar is where he’s most at home. He’s a modern day guitar master and his playing always manages to sound unique to him. He is in full control of his sound, making his guitar carve out whatever picture he wants.
What was so successful about Multi–Love was finding yourself in its songs and lyrics. Whilst the album was written about Nielson’s personal life, the lyrics rang true and were so open and honest you could find a piece of yourself in the songs. Sex & Food attempts to look away from the personal and present and take a snapshot of the world surrounding it. Just as his lyrics are buried under heavy effects, his message also gets lost. It’s something that hindered me from making the same personal connection with Sex & Food in the same way I have with his previous records.
Whilst there are holes in Sex & Food, the end result is still a very enjoyable listen. UMO’s records manage to always be very easy to listen to casually, whilst also having great depth to explore. Sex & Food is one you can dive into head first. It’s an album that brings some warmth to a dark place.