Ruban Nielson has never been satisfied with life on Earth. His records under Unknown Mortal Orchestra are drenched in cynicism and pessimistic outlooks towards the world his music occupies in. With his lyrical despondency comes the sound that has made Unknown Mortal Orchestra one of the most individualistic bands of the decade. UMO’s third, and most recent, record ‘Multi-Love’ found the New Zealand troupe exploring new ground focusing on the breakdown of a polyamorous relationship. One of the finest breakup records of this millennium, it pinpointed a breakthrough moment for UMO who finally received the recognition they deserved.
As the closing frenzy of ‘Puzzles’ abruptly signalled the end of their third album proving that, after forty-two minutes of musical therapy, nothing could be resolved, Unknown Mortal Orchestra only took less than a year to move on. 2016’s one-off single ‘First World Problem’ was a funky melodic jam that was a testament to Nielson’s songwriting. It also laid the foundations for UMO’s fourth and latest album. ‘First World Problem’ continued to confront love but with increased self-reflection. Nielson was aware of his troubles and seemingly had given up pursuing love, or at least in the traditional form. With his loss of love came a shrewd disinterest in life on Earth.
‘Sex & Food’ finds Unknown Mortal Orchestra aborting convention yet again. Straddling mystic grooves while dodging narrative sensibilities, the fourth entry in an already-impressive catalogue is bold yet bothered. It is packed with infectious melodies and charming vocal performances but UMO do not want you to give in that easily. Bloated with cloudy production and indecipherable vocals, ‘Sex & Food’ is also UMO’s most intentionally complex record to date.
In a press release, Ruban Nielson proclaimed ‘Sex & Food’ as the: “best thing we’ve done”. This confidence is omnipresent throughout the record. After the wistful opening instrumental of ‘A God Called Hubris’, a surge of stabbing guitars rips through the haze. ‘Major League Chemicals’ is without a doubt the most fiery launch to an Unknown Mortal Orchestra album. Battling a duality of disgruntled rage and unrelenting groove, the song finds Nielson confronting a partner whose drug habit has plagued her life, yet still clings onto their shared love. Frustrated not just by her actions but by the root of the problem, it is the perfect summation of the record – a disgruntled step back from society, an inward-looking analysis of society and the love-hate relationship we face with our world in the current political landscape.
A common trend that Unknown Mortal Orchestra find themselves applying throughout the album is the constant threat of masking their words. While earlier songs were shaded by vocal manipulation, the multi-layers and editing all-but cloaks the lyrics Nielson so delicately exudes.
Penultimate number ‘Not In Love We’re Just High’ is a slow-burning post-modern love story that takes time before closing emphatically. It is instrumentally brilliant. It is also near-impossible to distinguish what he is singing. Like a robot communicating through a broken signal, Nielson is not comfortable fully opening up, instead opting to alter his voice so his partner does not hurt. The irony in that is how extra-terrestrial this song sounds; emotion is buried so deep that the human act of expression is inhuman-like.
‘Hunnybee’ is a delectable dash of bedroom disco. In a break from the rest of the album, Ruban Nielson’s vocals are as clear as his motive. In an interview with NME, he describes the song as a “platonic love song” to his daughter (Hunnybee is her middle name). Merry and sweet, it is a slab of brilliance from a band who, when they want to, can conjure up some incredible moments. Simple in tone and melody, it could snuggle into Tom Misch’s new album without question. A crunching guitar solo accompanies an insatiable bassline that would make D’Angelo swoon. It is the stand-out highlight on the album; a rare moment of pristine pop that UMO have toyed with throughout their career.
Not the type to be boxed in, lead single ‘American Guilt’’s riff coils around skittish drums, snarling with withdrawn hatred. Sandwiched between the two aforementioned tracks is ‘Chronos Feasts On His Children’, fit with a conventional intimate UMO Spanish guitar lead. Stripped back, it is a short and sweet filler that serves as a meditator while also being utterly irresistible in charm. Lyrics like, “Pressure in the skull like leaking timber hull made dreams so wonderful“, are Unknown Mortal Orchestra through and through.
With designated dollops of disco in the shape of ‘Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays’ and ‘How Many Zeros’, the album never fails to drift off – the latter possesses a groove Thundercat would lick from a bowl. Occasionally UMO meanders lyrically – ‘The Internet of Love (That Way)’’s low-key instrumental is dampened by repetitive lines and a redundant length.
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Album closer ‘If You’re Going To Break Yourself’ is a vast, and superior, contradiction to ‘Multi-Love’s furious finale. Self-reflective and a self-imposed intervention, it is the first time in the album Ruban Nielson directly confronts his feelings. It is meditative and necessary; while the record is produced with murky surroundings and the vocals are in hibernation, ‘…Break Yourself’ is a personal conversation that speaks more with each listen. The songwriting is beautiful and the chorus is unequivocally satisfying.
A performance of the song was conducted on BBC Radio 6 Music in February. Ruban and brother Kody Nielson are the two sole members playing the rendition. Here, they illustrate how great the song is by how straight-forward it is. No overproduction, no needless vocal editing. Two talented brothers portraying a great song the way it deserves to be portrayed.
‘Sex & Food’ benefits greatly from the production. However you cannot help but wonder how the album would sound if it had more bite. The message behind the effects is clear but the pros only just outweigh the cons. Packed with delightful songs restricted by the significance of production, sometimes you just want to nudge Unknown Mortal Orchestra to remind them that what they have is impeccable as it is. Unknown Mortal Orchestra prove yet again that they have not figured out a solution to their problems but by the end of it, you believe they are closer than ever.
‘Sex & Food’ is out now via Jagjaguwar Records
1. A God Called Hubris
2. Major League Chemicals
3. Ministry of Alienation
5. Chronos Feasts on His Children
6. American Guilt
7. The Internet of Love That Way
8. Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays
9. This Doomsday
10. How Many Zeroes
11. Not in Love We’re Just High
12. If You’re Going to Break Yourself