Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson is exceptionally good at tapping into topics that matter and drawing the listener into his world; he is in some ways a story-teller, albeit one that uses repetition of only a few key words matched with soulful, psychedelic beats to flesh out his songs. In his 2015 album Multi-Love, Nielson grapples with many emotional topics that feel especially personal, but that touch on human experience with the external world. While a lot of his songs are catchy with an almost pop vibe, his music has true substance and seems to exist with the intention of pointing out cultural issues and unpacking them through a creative lens.
In Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s newest album Sex and Food, out on Jagjaguwar Records, Nielson delves even deeper into the human condition. One could call this a political album, though the politics are nuanced and up to interpretation; a sociological album might be a better description. He sets a tone for the album by beginning with a short intro piece entitled, “A God Called Hubris.” The meaning of hubris originates from Greek mythology, and in short describes an excess of pride/arrogance, and defiance of the gods. In many of the Greek tragedies this hubris appears in a mortal human man, whose selfish actions are a catalyst for chaos and destruction at the hands of the spited gods.
Nielson takes this idea of hubris and weaves it into each of his songs, almost calling out modern humanity for messing with the world so much that now we exist in a strange hellscape. Despite this slightly critical view, the songs never feel pretentious or condescending, because Nielson includes himself in the collective chaos; in Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays, he sings about a culture that has become complacent: “We’re growing in a vicious garden/We don’t complain or nothing/Did you hear that sound?/Silence.” By using the “we,” the lyrics retain their personal edge.
In the third song of the album, Ministry of Alienation, Nielson sings “My thinking is done by your machine/Can’t escape the 20th century.” It’s interesting that Nielson references the last century instead of the current one; it’s as if he is speaking to a different generation, one that pushed for the creation of technology which now governs our lives, and one that currently holds power in our government. The trumpet solo at the end of this song is delightfully reminiscent of the Beatles’ later, more psychedelic works, which is another hat tip to the last century.
Even the few songs on the album that at first listen sound more pop/dreamy and sweet, like the track Hunnybee, when you listen closely you hear the theme of modern cultural weirdness echoed in the lyrics: “A week is such a long time/Eras rot like nature/Age of paranoia/Don’t be such a modern stranger.”
Nielson makes another reference to Greek mythology and philosophy in a small interlude song that occurs a third of the way through the album, entitled Chronos Feasts on His Children. Chronos is the personification of Time, an insatiable being whose hunger affects us all. This song has an acoustic feel, with soft plucking guitars dancing around uniquely layered vocals sung at a higher pitch. It strategically stops short and quickly transitions into the thrashing, crunchy guitar sounds of one of the album’s singles, American Guilt, a transition that is thoughtful and creative in terms of the albums themes as well as sound.
The first few seconds of this song’s guitar riff draws in the listener; it’s unexpected yet familiar, abrasive yet intriguing at the same time. Almost addicting, the crashing guitars and fuzz vocals have you going back to that song again and again. Both musically and metaphorically this song holds a lot of weight within the album. The beat is heavy, and the guilt is heavier; we feel it as a listener, especially after pondering the ideas put forth by each previous song. After yelling “American guilt” over and over, the tune mellows out into soft pedals, strings, and birds chirping; almost like meditation music, the end of the song gives the listener space to calm down and ruminate on feelings that come up from the lyrics and incessant guitars.
Arguably every single song on Sex and Food can be unpacked and connected to this narrative Nielson has created about the strange, disturbing, and sometimes still lovely times we live in. This is an album where the lyrics really change the way the listener will consume and understand the music, and it might take a few times listening to it all the way through to hear it and feel it to the fullest potential.
While the lyrics within this album all seem to relate to an overarching intellectual theme, musically it feels more experimental and playful, spanning multiple genres with sounds from jazz, funk, soul, rock, pop, psychedelia, and disco. At first listen it may feel disjointed, random, but as you take in each song again and again, the thoughtful transitions between tracks help the album flow together into one cohesive piece, despite changes in sound, tempo and genre.
Each song in the album is well crafted and can hold its own when listened to apart from the others; some songs have that familiar dreamy-psychedelic beat that Unknown Mortal Orchestra fans have grown to know and love, while other songs have a darker, glitchier rock-and roll feel. It would be interesting to hear Nielson experiment with this heavier sound, creating an entire album of songs that have the vibe of “American Guilt.” However, for the artistic integrity of Sex and Food, the fact that that song stands out musically from the others only benefits the complexity of the album; a purposeful decision on Nielson’s part that propels Unknown Mortal Orchestra forward as a highly creative band who set new standards for experimentation and intellect in music, especially within the rock and roll genre.
Listen to Sex and Food via spotify