“American Guilt”—the first single off Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s much-anticipated follow up to 2015’s frenetic exploration of polyamory Multi Love—is misleading. A super-saturated rock anthem that frontman Ruban Nielson described as an invitation to “hear what this living dead genre sounds like in the UMO universe”, it is the exception rather than the rule on their latest album Sex and Food. The new album is slower than the discotheque tempos of Multi Love; these songs take time to sink in, to absorb the subtle interplay between lyrics and sound, and finally to root into the back of your consciousness so that finally—just as each of their past albums has done to me in turn—they feel so fundamentally perfect you could almost believe they originated there. If Multi Love was an uptempo exploration of love and sexuality, Sex and Food celebrates slowing things down. The sex and food in question are more akin to slow, sensual sex and the artisanal food movement, both of which only get better over time.
Formed in 2010 when New Zealand-born Nielson and bassist Jake Portrait released the track “Ffunny Ffriends” on an anonymous Bandcamp profile, a flurry of coverage from sites like Pitchfork in the following days led Nielson to claim the track as UMO’s. The band’s self-titled album was released in 2011 on Fat Possum records, with the follow-up—simply titled II—released through the band’s current label, Jagjaguwar, in the fall of 2012. A tour with Grizzly Bear followed, then a world tour with Foxygen as their opening band.
I came to UMO in 2015, the same year that Starbucks appropriated the flat white and just before every artisan competitor with a Gaggia espresso machine started playing “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” on repeat. The rhythms of Multi Love matched my penchant for paisley flared pants at the time, and—I soon discovered—were equally well-suited to wild bouts of dancing or crying, sometimes both at the same time. If the title track was one of the first to grab my attention, after listening to the album on repeat for a week I was surprised to realize it was impossible for me to pin down a singular favourite track—every few days I found myself humming a different song under my breath, moving in turn from “Stage or Screen” to “Necessary Evil” to “The World is Crowded”. Moving my way backwards through their music catalogue, falling for “From the Sun” and “So Good at Being in Trouble”.
Flash forward to this past February—when I first heard about the impending release of Sex and Food—and I was understandably worried. How could they follow up the perfection of Multi Love? The release of “American Guilt”, which I eventually warmed to, did nothing to allay my fears. The spare construction of “Not in Love We’re Just High” (released several weeks later) was a turn in the opposite direction; if “American Guilt” felt like it could have come from an old Queens of the Stone Age album, “Not in Love” channeled Prince-reminiscent soul, paring Nielson’s already un-enunciated voice down to the level of just another instrument. But this quality is actually what makes that track, and the entirety of Sex and Food, so strong. The beauty of this album lies not with the strength of the instrumentation or the delicacy of the lyrics, but in the nuanced and precise interplay between the two.
The album opens with a short 42-second introduction (“A God Called Hubris”) welcoming fans back into the fold. That quickly gives way to the first fully-fledged track, “Major League Chemicals”, which reaffirms Unknown’s mastery of sound production and tight guitar riffs. “Ministry of Alienation” is the first track that allows Neilson’s voice to float free from the background, solemnly proclaiming to be “sick of fake democracies” and unable to “escape the 20th century.”
“Hunnybee” is the closest in sound to Multi-Love, the disco up-tempos and Saturday Night Fever-esque violins prominent once again. “Chronos Feasts on His Children” is a throwback to II’s “From the Sun”, in composition if not in content. And then the album gives way to the heaviness of “American Guilt”. “[The song] is an attempt to capture some of the feelings floating around these days,” Nielson has said.
I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection listening to the single on its own, but in the context of Sex and Food, buoyed by the politicized lyrics of “Ministry of Alienation” and the gilded warnings of “Chronos”, “American Guilt” seems like a throwback to the last reverby rock single to express angst in response to a shitty president. If Green Day’s “American Idiot” was a response to the helplessness that was prevalent post-9/11 with another Republican making rash decisions, it was also the pinnacle of punk rock’s embrace by the mainstream. I remember listening to that CD on repeat at Barnes & Noble because I was nine and angry that a sense of security had been ripped out from beneath me. That and I had no money to actually buy the damn thing, much less understand the larger implications and history of punk rock as a genre. At a very base level, it expressed the rage I couldn’t articulate myself. In a way, “American Guilt” accomplishes the same thing, albeit it through a distinctly UMO lens.
If Sex and Food is about slowing down our enjoyment, it is also a warning against over-indulgence and excess. The light-sounding tone of “Everybody Acts Crazy Nowadays” belies the warning in its lyrics: “We’re growing in a vicious garden / We don’t complain for nothing”. “Not in Love We’re Just High” expresses the danger of exuberance while maintaining a minimalist, almost spare composition. Sex and Food leads by example, displaying a calibrated artistry that celebrates measured consideration and appreciation over excess. It’s an album that feels like an articulate stand-in for the unease I’ve been feeling pretty much non-stop since the fall of 2016. Sex and Food is a beautiful introspection and a far better answer to the day’s political malaise and helplessness than my usual response of embarking on an enraged and slutty food binge. B PLUS