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Where are we headed? What are we consuming, how is it affecting us, and why does everything feel so bad and weird sometimes? These are some of the questions posed on Ruban Nielson's fourth album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Sex & Food – a delightfully shapeshifting album that filters these real-deal serious themes through a vibrant sonic lens that spans battered drum-machine funk, doomy and thrashing rock, and pink-hued psychedelic disco. Recorded in a variety of locales from Seoul and Hanoi to Reykjavik, Mexico City, and Auckland, Sex & Food is a practical musical travelogue, with local musicians from the countries that Nielson and his band visited pitching in throughout.
Over the last decade, Nielson's established himself as one of the most inventive sonic traveler currently working, and Sex & Food is the most eclectic and expansive Unknown Mortal Orchestra release yet, from the light-footed R&B of "Hunnybee" to the stomping flange of "Major League Chemicals." The adventurousness is all the more impressive considering that there's a bit of DNA from the past UMO discography in Sex & Food: the soft-focus psych of the project's 2011 debut LP, the lovely melancholia of 2013's II, and the weirded-out funk of 2015's virtuosic Multi-Love.
But rather than living in the past, Nielson is firmly in the here and now, drawing from personal unrest and generational malaise while surveying a variety of societal ailments. "If You're Going to Break Yourself" and "Not in Love We're Just High" chronicle the effects of drugs and addiction on personal relationships, while the lyrics for "Ministry of Alienation" drip with modern-day paranoia like the silvery guitar tones that jewel the song's structure. It's a scary world out there, and it's been that way for a while – and Sex & Food finds Nielson surveying the damage while attempting to reckon with the magnitude of it all.
Indeed, the modern world – and all the thorny complications that come with living in it – loomed large on Ruban's mind while making Sex & Food. But even though he's not afraid to get topical throughout – as evidenced on the surprisingly boisterous "American Guilt" or the roomy-disco medication-meditation "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays" – Ruban was also careful not to get too political, and for good reason. "Everything is so soaked in politics, and it's kind of depressing for everything to be political right now," he explains. "I wanted to keep it light. I think everyone's feeling angry, and there's nothing particularly interesting about my anger."