A few listens into Unknown Mortal Orchestra‘s fourth record it becomes clear that it is less accessible than any of their previous albums. Repeat plays reveal grooves that you can ride and little figures that jump out, but it remains a much more abstract piece of work than anything else Ruban Nielson’s project has put out.
This isn’t in itself a bad thing, and it’s not as though Unknown Mortal Orchestra have been aiming at getting playlisted by Magic FM, but there is nonetheless a nagging sense that you can’t quite make it through all the layers and get to the heart of what it’s about.
The title might offer a hint though, sex and food both being physical, carnal, sensual things. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare famously suggested that music is the food of love. We can’t know for sure what kind of music he had in mind when making that comparison, but if any music is the food of sex then Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s dark and sweaty psychedelic funk is probably it.
It’s an album about pleasure, then, although not afraid of showing the darker side of hedonism, or asking questions about what pleasure even is or means in the 21st century. “No one will fuck the ugly robot,” Nielson sings on Ministry Of Alienation, the words pillowed by a sound that’s neither ugly nor robotic. On one level that line recalls Grandaddy‘s lyrical themes, but it also calls to mind the tech-triggered confusion and malaise described on MGMT‘s latest album. If we’re going to start making sex robots then some of them are going to end up ugly.
Not In Love We’re Just High is melancholy, but not without a bit of wry humour as Nielson begins the second verse with the line “Second verses are the worst of curses”. It’s a lovely, fragile song, though, with its vocals wavering over a simple synth figure. Its production takes cues from hip-hop and R’n’B and its sound and mood place it alongside the sad sex songs of the likes of Drake and The Weeknd. It definitely sounds as though someone’s high, but they’re all too aware of it and not entirely sure it was a good idea.
Like most dinner parties or orgies, Sex & Food does have moments where everything starts to feel a bit tired and bogged down. The Internet Of Love (That Way) is one point where it really starts to lose its groove. But for the most part it constantly shimmers and ripples. That’s a good thing in terms of its colour and atmosphere, but it does mean that there is a lack of ebb and flow. It’s interesting to compare This Doomsday, the most acoustic-based track here, with Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark), the similarly acoustic cut from Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second album. Swim and Sleep has more of a circadian rhythm, whereas This Doomsday never really decides if it’s night or day.
But generally, Nielson and co do a decent job here of corralling a set of songs that have quite different pedigrees. There’s no one style neatly tying the whole package together, but it’s just about possible to tie it down to two: ’60s California psych and dancefloor funk. American Guilt is the heaviest track here, wigging out shamelessly and smothered with fuzz. Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays is the funkiest; it’s sun-drenched beat is reminiscent of Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, the biggest track from previous album Multi-Love.
Sex & Food might be reluctant to fully reveal itself, but in being the most uncompromising album in Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s discography it also feels like Nielson’s most honest musical statement to date.