Unknown Mortal Orchestra: fuzzy, funky, dark
Molly Chen | Monday, April 30, 2018
If you had to describe the newest album from Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) in three words, they would be fuzzy, funky and dark. After years of distinctive psychedelic rock, the New Zealand group released “Sex & Food,” the band’s fourth full-length album that manages to maintain the characteristic, buzzing lo-fi sound that grabbed listeners’ attention from UMO’s beginning while taking steps in bold, new directions.
The album kicks off with “A God Called Hubris,” a 41-second introduction featuring only a steady beat and blurred baseline that lead perfectly into the record’s proper beginning, “Major League Chemicals.” While the riff-heavy track seems to set the stage for a collection that will be unlike anything we’ve heard from UMO before, the band starts to lean toward their familiar style in “Ministry of Alienation.” A relaxed pulse and loose, wavering guitar prime listeners for songwriter, guitarist and singer Ruban Nielson’s instantly recognizable, distant vocals delivering disaffected lyrics like “my thinking is done by your machine / can’t escape the 20th century.” A brief saxophone solo introduces itself just 10 seconds before the song ends, where it’s choked off as quickly as it was established.
“Hunnybee” follows, hovering somewhere between rhythm and blues (R&B) and disco as Nielson recites lyrics written for his seven-year-old daughter — “Hunnybee, there’s no such thing as sweeter a sting.” Nodding toward fan-favorite “Multi-Love” with tight, rhythmic violin and disco-inspired beats, it’s one of the record’s strongest and most listened-to tracks. However, things start to get darker at the album’s brief fifth song, “Chronos Feasts on His Children,” presenting only a plucked electric guitar and Nielson’s familiar but somehow unsettling harmonies as he sings “Chronos feasts on his children like turning mango flesh / will the trouble cease when she pays off the police?”
After this turnaround, we hear a return to the heavy guitar that opened the record up in the next song, “American Guilt.” Although its early release undoubtedly heightened anticipation for “Sex & Food,” this decision prepared listeners for an album that would be packed with the dense guitar and howling vocals that make the track so exciting — but “American Guilt” remains more of an exception than a rule. While showing clear steps in a different direction, the song is one of the least conventional-UMO-sounding tracks on the album, but is still arguably one of the greatest.
“The Internet of Love (That Way)” serves as the album’s unsung jam — R&B-influenced with a simple backing beat, groovy guitar and lyrics like “only you could love me that way,” the song feels like a mix of heartbreak and commemoration of love over the internet. Things abruptly shift from smooth to upbeat and danceable with “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays,” appropriately named for its driving beat, effects-laden vocals and unexpected turns. Synthesizers oscillate between bubbly and hectic before an unexpected violin closes the song, and “Sex & Food” goes back to feeling dark and unsettling with “This Doomsday.” Led with an acoustic guitar and familiar, whispered vocals, Nielson hints at looming darkness as he chants, “God’s face was so big on that day / Lord don’t let me get bored Sunday / Left with a million things to say / Left me on this doomsday.”
Things pick up again with dizzying, falsetto-led “How Many Zeros,” and begin to wrap up with “Not in Love We’re Just High.” Beginning with unnerving, glitching noise before introducing a paced, even synth, the Prince-tinged track is especially memorable. The lyrics are difficult to make out in some places, as Nielson’s vocals are cut short and backed by a simple beat that works to create an atmospheric sort of washed-out feeling that accompanies lyrics about romantic inabilities. The final track, “If You’re Going to Break Yourself,” is a drowsy rock ballad filled with soothingly smooth guitar and satisfying bass.
“Sex & Food” is overall enjoyable, but difficult to nail down. While some parts of the album are so new they’re next-to unrecognizable, others linger dangerously close to forgettable due to their familiarity. Regardless, all of the tracks come together to leave listeners feeling somewhat tired and waiting for a breakthrough of meaning that we never quite reach. The album is haunting in some ways, and demands attention from long-time fans and new listeners alike in ways that only UMO can. Still, Unknown Mortal Orchestra never fails to impress as they continue to bring contemporary issues to listeners’ attention and bend the rules of genre.
Artist: Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Album: Sex & Food
Favorite Tracks: Hunnybee, American Guilt, The Internet of Love (That Way)
If You Like: Foxygen, DIIV, Tame Impala, Melody’s Echo Chamber