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Music UMO

Published on April 13th, 2018 | by voxx

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Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Sex & Food

Ruban Nielson takes a funky, psychedelic trip of self-discovery…

In May 2015, the narrative around a promising modern psych album went off on a rather unexpected trajectory. The third Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, Multi-Love, showcased a talent of Beck-like agility: where wooziness and glitches only partially disguised the pop smarts of their linchpin, Ruban Nielson.

The album, it transpired, was about the polyamorous relationship Nielson, his wife and another woman had engaged in while the recording was being made. Repercussions were inevitable. The third person, who’d been forced to leave the US due to visa issues, cut off communication in the wake of Nielson’s indiscretion. And the imaginative music that this New Zealand expat made in his Portland basement becomes inseparable from the backstory, and the prurience it attracted.

The suspicion that Nielson might be somehow chastened by the whole experience comes through immediately on Sex & Food, Multi-Love’s frequently tremendous follow-up, as an opening instrumental of sputtering beats and distorted Brian Wilson piano is given the title ‘A God Called Hubris’. Escape seems to be on Nielson’s mind. Recording sessions took place in Seoul, Hanoi, Reykjavik, Mexico City and Auckland, as if he were on the run from a complicated life, only to find himself in a wider, even more complicated world.

Still, Nielson’s trademark sound – a mix of acid rock and plastic soul coated in grime – is much the same as it was in the hermetic environs of his home. Prince-like virtuosity is casually deployed, so much so Nielson seems to pay as much attention to detritus as technique: the squeak of strings feels as important as the actual filigree acoustic playing on ‘This Doomsday’. Elevated pop moments, likewise, manifest themselves unassumingly: ‘Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays’, in particular, resembles a Michael Jackson take on Blondie’s ‘Union City Blue’.

Just as Nielson’s sonic aesthetic remains constant wherever he travels, so do his anxieties – about old relationships, old friends, old habits. The most overt reference to a meal on Sex & Food has the Greek god Chronos eating his children, and the album could have been more appositely titled “Sex & Drugs”, given the chemical references. Outstanding slow jams like ‘Not In Love We’re Just High’ offer Nielson as a rueful, whispering successor to Green Gartside.

Nielson would do well to learn from Scritti Politti’s obliqueness, after his previous confessions. Nevertheless, the highlight of Sex & Food comes with ‘Hunnybee’, a straightforward love song – albeit one addressed to his seven-year-old daughter. Over lovely, clipped funk he observes that “days are getting darker”, but a father’s duty compels him to find strands of optimism in how “eras rot like nature”. As with geopolitics, perhaps also with personal affairs, it is Nielson’s peculiar genius to retain the lightest touch, even as everything falls apart.

- By Jake White


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