Where are we headed? What are we consuming, how is it affecting us, and why does everything feel so bad and weird sometimes? These are some of the questions posed on Ruban Nielson’s fourth album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sex & Food—a delightfully shapeshifting album that filters these real-deal serious themes through a vibrant sonic lens that spans battered drum-machine funk, doomy and thrashing rock, and pink-hued psychedelic disco. Recorded in a variety of locales from Seoul and Hanoi to Reykjavik, Mexico City, and Auckland, Sex & Food is a practical musical travelogue.
Over the last decade, Nielson’s established himself as one of the most inventive sonic travelers currently working, and Sex & Food is the most eclectic and expansive Unknown Mortal Orchestra release yet, from the light-footed R&B of “Hunnybee” to the stomping flange of “Major League Chemicals.” The adventurousness is all the more impressive considering that there’s a bit of DNA from the past UMO discography in Sex & Food: the soft-focus psych of the project’s 2011 debut LP, the lovely melancholia of 2013’s II, and the weirded-out funk of 2015’s virtuosic Multi-Love.
But rather than living in the past, Nielson is firmly in the here and now, drawing from personal unrest and generational malaise while surveying a variety of societal ailments. “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” and “Not in Love We’re Just High” chronicle the effects of drugs and addiction on personal relationships, while the lyrics “Ministry of Alienation” drip with modern-day paranoia like the silvery guitar tones that jewel the song’s structure: “My thinking is done by your machine/ Can’t escape the 20th century.” It’s a scary world out there, and it’s been that way for a while—and Sex & Food finds Nielson surveying the damage while attempting to reckon with the magnitude of it all.
Along with UMO bandmates and frequent collaborators Jacob Portrait and Kody Nielson, Ruban began work on Sex & Food in early 2016, initially intending to draw musical influence from post-punk luminaries of his youth—think Killing Joke or Public Image Limited’s singular Flowers of Romance. But as he toiled, Ruban began to realize the aesthetic limits of his aims. “Post-punk is so tasteful to my generation,” he states. “There’s no guilty pleasure to it—I just think it’s cool and good. When it comes to rock, I want to get into dodgier territory.”
A statement of selflessness, to be sure—but make no mistake: Sex & Food reaffirms the vitality of Ruban’s voice in today’s musical landscape, and when it comes to navigating the strange and often discouraging pathways our society’s taken, it makes for a damn fine compass, too.