Ruban Nielson, the main man behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, insists that his Portland avant-pop band’s fourth album Sex & Food is a mostly apolitical statement: “I wanted to keep it light,” he says in the record’s press notes. “It’s kind of depressing for everything to be political right now.”
But just as our repressed emotions often manifest in unexpected ways, the shit-eating that Nielson and so many of us have been doing for the past 18 months reveals itself in the tone and color of Sex & Food. The fuzzy and furious “American Guilt” (“When the meek can’t stand still/Even the Nazis bribe them,” he spits out over a psych guitar freakout) lies very much on the surface, but the rest of the album moves with the mood of a typical day in modern America: a heavy, bone-deep ache punctuated by small spikes of joy.
The scales stay fairly balanced, from a musical standpoint. The weeping acid soul of “Ministry of Alienation” gives way to a chipper disco number about Nielson’s daughter (“Hunnybee”), and the creaking “This Doomsday” is swept aside by the sashaying beat of “How Many Zeros.”
The spirit of the LP dips precipitously downward as the lyrics come into focus (which they sometimes don’t, thanks to the effects and murk layered on Nielson’s voice). Almost all of the songs concern the desperate malaise of everyday people fending off internet trolls, feasting on drugs to lighten their existential burden, and seeking further respite in the two equally addictive nouns that make up the album title.
Sex & Food serves as a snapshot of our current era, but also as an understated warning to anyone who’ll listen: Don’t dare mistake what’s going on now as what will always be, and practice moderation in all things—even listening to rock albums. Enjoy those temporary thrills, but sooner or later, we all have to address what’s rotting away at our cores.