Unknown Mortal Orchestra is known for blending genres, sliding easily between disco-tinged dance tracks, funk laden grooves and jazz freakouts, but it is Ruban Nielson’s ability to explore the dichotomy between beautiful and ugly that really stands out on Sex & Food.
From the opening strains of “A God Called Hubris” it is immediately evident that this is a completely different beast than Multi-Love. The opening track is a fuzzed-out instrumental that segues directly into “Major League Chemicals,” a psych rock throwback with driving 70’s guitar and rock organ under highly distorted vocals. The vocals create a dissonance with the music, the two elements competing for superiority, creating a tension throughout the song that is only resolved when the vocals drop away.
“Ministry of Alienation” is a beautiful melody masking dystopian lyrics about a broken society. The sparse guitar over a Xanax beat describes the loneliness of living in a world where “My thinking is done by your machine.” But Nielson reveals that he is talking about the current state of the world, “Can’t escape the 20th century.”
“Hunnybee” sounds like a track that could have come from Multi-Love, with it soft funk and hand clap percussion. This is as close to a dance song as you are going to find on this album, and it has a subdued core, never spilling over into full-on disco. It even includes a guitar solo to further subvert dance expectations.
“Chronos Feeds on His Children” acts more like a extended opening to the bluster of “American Guilt” than a full-fledged song. The soft acoustic guitar and breathy vocals almost obfuscate lyrics filled with imagery of decay. The song dead ends abruptly like an incomplete thought before the full-on distortion of “American Guilt,” which is a complete anomaly on the album. Nothing else sounds like this, in fact, the guitar riff sounds like Queens of the Stone Age. At the halfway point of the album, it acts as a wake up call.
“The Internet of Love” sounds like a Prince-inspired R&B slow jam. The dancing keyboard and bluesy vocals almost disguise that the song is about the lack of love and the loneliness of a hollow, one-way relationship with technology. “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” is a hybrid of Aja period Steely Dan and Hall and Oates at their funkiest, with a weird undercurrent of electropop.
“Not in Love We’re Just High” is a slow-build R&B soul-wringer that morphs into a full-on banger toward the end. Album closer “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” is a meditation on the pain caused by self-destructive friends, and the emotional impact their actions have on the people that care about them, “If you’re going to break yourself/You’re gonna break me.”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra dives deeper on this album, favoring introspection and challenging their fans to keep up with their genre fluidity. The album really highlights their production abilities, and how nimbly the band not only jumps between genres, but how they morph them and mash them together.
Nielson has a special ability to turn ugly imagery into beautiful melody, or create a tension in the aural soundscape by putting sounds together that cause conflict, only to reward the listener in the resolution of that conflict. The album takes a few listens to really soak in, but the rewards are well worth the time spent.
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