These days, many issues are presented as black and white with no gray area in between. In an age when the world of information is at our fingertips and anything can be ordered with a single click, discourse often suffers the same fate. Taking a complex idea and thinking of it as purely good or purely bad makes it easier to digest quickly and move on. But it takes a lot more time and effort to dig into the gray areas. To find the negative hiding beneath the surface of the positive and vice versa.
Sex & Food, the latest album by New Zealand psychedelic rockers Unknown Mortal Orchestra, does just that. Three years after their major critical success, Multi-Love, the band, led by songwriter Ruban Nielson, have dipped even further into the psychedelic, stepping away from the clearer cut, disco-funk tinged sound of that album and obscured the sharper edges to explore the muddy waters of the more middle ground.
Sex & Food takes great inspiration from the heavily effected sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. The album glitters with Hendrix-esque guitar sounds; warbly chords and wailing crescendos. Nielson’s melodies are fuzzy and ethereal forcing the ear to bend to try and comprehend his lyrics. There are a few hints here and there of the old Unknown Mortal Orchestra with its straight ahead grooves and sharp, multi-layered guitar melodies. But more often than not the sound is a cacophony of effects pedals and mumbling vocal delivery used to great effect. The depth of the sound helps to enhance the cleaner, crisper moments and sheds light on the major ideas of the album.
While on the surface, tunes like
“Hunnybee”, “How Many Zeros”, and “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” have a bounciness to them that might betray a bubbly, pop optimism, the album’s lyrics center more around the darkness hiding underneath the surface in much of our modern lives. The line that opens “Ministry of Alienation” where Nielson sings “Amoral but not evil” nods to the subtle distinctions that twist perception. “The Internet of Love (That Way” similarly addresses the complicated positives and negatives of interpersonal relationships on the internet which, while often strange and entirely unlike relationships in the real world or in the past, can provide their own form of human connection. Nielson explores a lot of the moral and emotional borderlands that are emerging in recent year.
Sex & Food contains dynamic highs and lows as well. Nielson sounds like a very early version of himself at times during “Chronos Feast of His Children” and “This Doomsday”, whispering along with acoustic driven melodies. Other tracks like the lead single, “American Guilt” with its blues-rock lead riff and howling vocals, reveal a rawness previous unheard by the group. These influences are fairly compartmentalized in the full context of the album giving it a jitteriness and an unpredictability. It takes some time to get a real sense of the albums sounds and themes.
There’s a lot to dig into and a lot to like about Sex & Food. It’s not as instantly catchy and focused as Multi-Love but there is a craft to Nielson’s songwriting that is timelessly engaging. The album appears to be a bit intentionally obscured by lots of sound and transformation and mumbled phrases. It is not instantly apparent what’s going on beneath the surface, but it is gripping enough to bring you back to explore more of what’s beneath, and that’s really all it wants, for you to dig a little deeper and see it for what it really is deeper down.