Sex and Food is a misleading title for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s fourth album. Ruban Nielson, the New Zealand-born Portland-based psych rocker behind the UMO moniker, recently told the NME that he wanted an album name that was “simple and dumb.”
There is plenty enough enjoyment in Sex and Food to come away feeling full with pleasure – but in order to indulge, you first have to manoeuvre through some of Nielson’s gnarliest work yet, and that’s hardly “simple.” 2015’s Multi-Love, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s third album, was a riot of rich harmonies and euphorically explicit emotion. Nielson does not make the emotional sensibilities of Sex and Food quite so clear-cut.
Opener “A God Called Hubris” is a spluttering, jolting instrumental, which quickly makes way for the rough guitar of “Major League Chemicals,” a fast and rhythmically exciting track which sees Nielson’s vocals characteristically hidden under layers of distortion and his brother Kody’s rattling drums. Nielson yields his guitar like a weapon, fighting over cross rhythms against synthesisers, an organ, and bass, resulting in an abrasive and knotty frenzy.
The frenzy doesn’t stop there. Once you allow yourself to be enveloped by its dirty Jimi Hendrix-like guitar line, lead single “American Guilt” is just as propulsive. It’s fired up with all the gritty fury of 2018 in America, unrelenting in its tenacity, which makes it an exhausting listen before it ripples out into a spacey serenity for its final few seconds.
While straightforward anger is always a very human response, it’s more gracious to channel fury and confusion into something poignant or thought-provoking. On “The Internet of Love (That Way)” Nielson does just that, taking on all instrumental parts himself. “Only you could love me / That way,” he sings, as though falling to his knees, or waving a red flag in surrender. The song meanders with a real soulful slack, while holding tight to the scalic guitar riffs reminiscent of “From the Sun” and “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” which featured on 2013’s II, the second UMO album.
There’s no doubt that Nielson is a first-rate guitarist. It’s his rhythms – incessant, catchy things – that stand out. They have the habit of feeling as though they’re hanging back and slinking into a pleasant groove, while simultaneously being pushed along by the vivacious tirade necessary to keep up with the sharp accuracy his pacey songwriting requires. And when Nielson finds the right rhythm, he makes his very best tracks impossibly easy to swoon over.
With “Hunnybee,” it’s the swaggering groove with a killer backbeat which catches you in its midst. There’s sweet affection too – the track is for his daughter, Iris, whose middle name gave the song its title, and to whom Nielson advises, “There’s no such thing sweeter than a sting.” “Hunnybee” is an exemplum of an excellent UMO track: tight rhythms, keen harmony, and an unrivalled sensitivity. And when Nielson knows it’s good, he doesn’t need to brag about it with overly-jarring guitars and raucous drums. Instead, he pulls the track back, and lets it glide away on loop for four and a half golden minutes.
Sex and Love is best when self-assured but not arrogant, and when Nielson offers up confidently subdued melodies which give space for his production to ring out: the off-kilter jolt of “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” is relentlessly fun, reliant on bouncy synths and the lush drumming that was abundant on Multi-Love. “This Doomsday” plays with stunning triplets on Spanish-sounding guitar. “Not In Love We’re Just High” is a layered synth-based track with Nelson’s vocals playing a cog caught in a hazy wheel.
It might seem contrary to the first few songs on the album, but vigorous pace and brash vivacity aren’t required elements of the best tracks on Sex and Food. Unknown Mortal Orchestra sounds best when intricate, but tender-hearted.