It’s tempting to call Sex & Food a meandering mess of an album.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s music has married neo-psychedelic tropes with a doggedly inward focus, making them stand out among the similar-sounding likes of Tame Impala. In that sense, UMO has never quite felt like a band so much as a vehicle for the work of chief songwriter Ruban Nielson, and each record has pulled the curtain ever so slightly back to expose a different aspect of his life and psyche. However, while each UMO album has gotten more personal, the music maintains a certain consistent groove that straddles the line between psych-rock and R&B. On Sex & Food, however, that consistency is shattered in a remarkable way.
UMO’s prior album, Multi-Love, seemed to strive to cut through the band’s hazy sound in search of clarity. In one quick instant, Sex & Food does away with all of that. This is a harsh record by UMO’s standards, filled with sharpened guitar tones that hew closer to garage rock than the sinewy, groove-heavy psych that one would expect. After a short instrumental passage, Nielson introduces this new approach with “Major League Chemicals,” an up-tempo rocker that obscures both Nielson’s voice and the rhythm section in layers of studio trickery in such a way that the whole song feels like an acid trip gone wrong (likely the desired effect). That sort of vibe-killing aggression is Nielson’s thematic crutch throughout Sex & Food, and the result is arguably the most deliberately alienating set of songs he could have come up with.
Despite Nielson’s apparent efforts to the contrary, there’s still plenty to like about Sex & Food. While much of the album takes on a confrontational tone, it comes across as more interesting than it is frustrating. Nielson is still a gifted melodicist, and no amount of aesthetic obfuscation could conceal that no matter how hard he tries. The album’s strange, blurry garage rave-ups are still, at their core, enjoyable rock songs. One gets the sense that Nielson is exploring new ways to evolve this project, even as his approach here feels casually destructive.
What’s less encouraging are the instances when UMO tries to sound like, well, themselves. Nielson scatters moments of sweetness on the album (there’s a song called “Hunnybee”), but they just end up feeling incompatible with the more acidic tone of his lyrics. In what is perhaps the album’s most tonally incongruous moment, Nielson presents “Chronos Feasts on His Children,” a fingerpicked folk ballad whose lyrics refer to the horror of the mythic story of the title. Some might find it clever, but it just feels off, and it serves as further evidence that Nielson’s new ideas might be incompatible with what the band has done before.
It’s tempting to call Sex & Food a meandering mess of an album, and it does at times feel that way. Nielson is definitely asking a lot from fans to follow him down this particular path. However, the schizophrenic nature of the album also hints that Nielson may be aware of how worryingly close UMO came to being lost among the glut of neo-psych bands whose purpose just seems to be to pad out festival bills every summer. Nielson’s ambitions extend beyond that, as Sex & Food clearly shows. It’s a shame, though, that the end product isn’t as focused as it could have been.