When Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s song “Ffunny Ffrends” mysteriously popped up on Bandcamp back in 2010, it was a random, ownerless track. It was lauded by critics for its mastery of lo-fi garage psychedelia. Eventually, “Ffunny Ffrends” was tacked on to the band’s debut, self-titled album, which fully encompassed the same sense of lo-fi psychedelia. Composed primarily of Ruban Nielsen on vocals and guitar with some help from other musicians, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has traditionally been a vehicle for stripped-back approaches to music — no bells and whistles, just exciting melodies and rhythms. Their early work set them apart as a band that was equal parts nostalgic for a bygone era and emblematic of a new era, fast approaching.
Sex and Food, their fourth album, sheds the lo-fi ambiance in exchange for a crisper take on the nostalgia-ridden futurism. Fuzzy guitar chords still remain a staple for many of the album’s songs, but this time they’re accompanied by deeper rhythm and funkier grooves. In fact, the entirety of Sex and Food takes on all kinds of new flavors — there are new elements of funk, hip-hop and folk production that, while present in previous albums, now take much more of a central role.
Nielsen holds on to his vocal manipulations, but, ultimately, they fail to capture the subtlety that first made Unknown Mortal Orchestra stand out so much. The mixing and overall sound quality are markedly different than their previous output. The inspirations and musical palettes remain the same, but they’re presented with more precision. With the death of their spacey, lo-fi recording comes the death of a level of quirkiness that was wholly unique to Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
While Sex and Food
“Not in Love We’re Just High” is a callback to the days of their first two records. Nielsen’s voice melts into the pulsing guitar; finger snaps bring a novelty to the track, while simple drums cascade into raucous breaks in the melodies. Nielsen’s sound is apathetic: he is unable to — even unwilling to — connect on a deeper level with people. Sex and Food is filled with this kind of dissonance. Many of the tracks are filled with ideas of nihilism. Nielsen acts on what makes him feel good at a base level, often rejecting higher ideas of fulfillment. The result is an album that shows Nielsen creeping further into his own mind.
Nielsen’s talent is not in question. His ability to combine his love for 60s-inspired psych rock and the thoughts going on in his psyche is strong, but it’s creeping closer and closer to repetition. His music is interesting enough to send you on a psychedelic journey without the drugs, but they also threaten to send that trip down a scary path — if not because of the repetition in some songs, then because of what Nielsen is actually contemplating on the record. Sex and Food’s hazy instrumentals encourage interaction, while Nielsen’s lyrics encourage introspection.