Tarron Chambers has never listened to UMO before, and Allie Miller is a longtime fan.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Sex & Food: A Mix of Sugar & Spice
By Tarron Chambers
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s (UMO) latest album Sex & Food begins with this cheery phrase on the song “A God Called Hubris” and what immediately follows is an upbeat and ethereal instrumental that starts a 43-minute dive into the complexities of love, government, drugs, and much more. The essence of the album, in many ways, is captured in the irony created by this intro, which quickly segues into the loud, brash instrumental opening of the second song “Major League of Chemicals,” which sounds just as upbeat and exciting but spews dark lyrics about a woman unable to escape the call of illicit drug use.
This juxtaposition of the upbeat, driving instrumentals and somber lyrics remains a central theme of the album especially on tracks such as the groovy summer jam “Hunnybee,” which is a warning to singer Ruban Nielson’s daughter about the dangers of the world; a silvery voice casually calls this an “age of paranoia” and says the “days are getting darker.” The track “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” is about a rapidly approaching mortality, but could be mistaken for a generic disco or pop song. This dissonance between music and lyrics, or tranquility and solemnity, resonates with the name of the album: Sex & Food, a simple, blissful title, so easily taken at face-value, understood by most in modern American society, smacked onto an album which delves deep into the complexities of life. The title illustrates the album’s premise: exposing the darker and harder sides of society, but masking the exposé with what society force–feeds to us until we are sick, the distracting sounds of the everyday.
In fact, only a few of the songs on the album seem to mirror the sinister feeling of the message within the music itself. One of my personal favorites, “Ministry of Alienation” does this with ominous guitar riffs and a melancholy atmospheric sound, as the song elucidates distrust in the movement towards greater reliance on an isolating new technology, culminating in a whirlwind of saxophone and undisclosed noise to end the track. Another track like this is “American Guilt,” in which a crunchy electric guitar embodies paranoia and anger about surveillance and control by the American government with chants of “Oh no!” and even a direct reference to Nazis, saying that even Nazis would “cry” if they had the knowledge that America has acquired.
Overall, this album provided me with a unique experience compared to much of the music that I listen to, as it explored deeper and more complex topics of American society while never overwhelming the darker lyrical lamentations with music to match. This is my first time listening to UMO, so I don’t know if this album is reflective of UMO’s discography, or if this was a foray into unexplored musical territory. Regardless, this album managed to completely engross me in the music, and UMO certainly has a new fan. I look forward to both going back and listening to their older music, as well as seeing where UMO wanders in the future.
Sex & Food: A First Listen
By Allie Miller
Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their fourth album to date this past week, entitled Sex & Food. My friend and I planned our first listen: two blankets, her crazy creek and weed pen, my speaker and water bottle. We went to Lullwater park, parked on a green hill amid green looming trees and a white/grey sky, and sunk into the album with a beginner’s mind.
The 41-second “A God Called Hubris” winds you up, and “Major League Chemicals” lets you go. The latter is driving, and lets us know that UMO is still the same guitar-driven, distorted-vocals band that they were on past albums. The guitar riff opening “Ministry of Alienation” is warped and alive and catches our attention; then the beat comes in, and the lyrics “amoral but not evil” soak us. A classic UMO track, grounded in rhythm and entirely original chord progressions, all you need to do is nod your head to the beat, and feel the seemingly tangible guitar licks. Ruban muses to his followers about the qualms of living in the 20th century, a scattered digital wasteland that leaves one isolated. The isolated individual has a mental break at the end of the tune, in the sax solo which unfolds aimlessly, only to be cut off almost immediately. UMO curtly, almost apathetically, transitions into the dreamy chords that start off “Hunnybee,” an upbeat, dance-y tune. Ruban serenades us as he would his daughter, and then sweeps us away with a romantic, electric, dreamy guitar solo. The sun-drenched guitar arpeggios introducing “Chronos Feasts on His Children” are reminiscent of “From the Sun” from II. The tale gets cut off and “oh no, here it comes, the American Guilt.” This driving, rough song takes us away into an ethereal, in-limbo outer-space, until we’re back to the moody, brooding guitar meanderings of “The Internet of Love.” Everything about this song, from the lyrics to the harmony, is bittersweet. Somber, but full of love. This mastered dichotomy is perhaps what makes UMO so unique, and so loveable. They express the happenings of life beautifully, brutally, and simply.
The album is a mix of unfinished explorations that do not outpace themselves, and upbeat, dance-y songs that, although are still commentaries on life in a technological, isolating age, also make you want to let go and forget about the persisting subject matter. This is the magic of UMO’s ethereal, underground, modulating, ever-moving compositions. The multifaceted musical expressions this album shifts through allow us to walk, dance, run, pace, as we reflect on the world that we live in, and the moment we are in as we listen through Sex & Food. Ruban moves us around like an elastic band, and we are as numb, as solid, as free as an intangible object, except that we are made to feel so much by the harmony and rhythm of “If You’re Going to Break Yourself.” The lyrics are, of, course, another story, and stop us, with the help of a harmonic modulation, at the hook: “If you’re going to break yourself, you’re gonna to break me.” Ruban takes his time getting our attention to deliver that enslaving message, which chains us back to our humanity, our need to be loved, our desire for happiness, a fleeting and elusive feeling, packaged with the anxiety that makes it so fleeting. The album ends on this brooding exploration, and it is here that UMO leaves us to press into the grass, look up at the sky, and watch how the trees, much stronger than us, feel, and live.