Unknown Mortal Orchestra, “Sex & Food”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Sex & Food
JAGJAGUWAR
7/10

While Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s stylistic tendencies drift and meander unexpectedly, their coherence as a band has followed a surprisingly straightforward trajectory. Their shaggy self-titled debut wore its warts with glee. But ever since, the band has honed that foundation into something more refined and purposeful with each successive release—a steady but methodical evolution lending their discography both striking consistency and palpable progression.

This culminated in 2015’s Multi-Love, a shiny pop breakthrough that nudged their sound into fresh territory but nonetheless hewed closely to UMO’s signature funk and soul–drenched psych rock. Their latest record, Sex & Food, opts to treat their past work much like their past work treated their past work: Don’t radically reinvent the wheel, but tweak it at the margins.

It may sound like a disappointingly conservative strategy, but Sex & Food is a vital addition to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s oeuvre—at turns both understated and colorful, confident in what it wants to be but not afraid to wander into uncharted territory. It is arguably as assured and polished as the band has ever been, infusing their sound with a certain beauty that Multi-Love hinted at but left partially unexplored.

Having said that, there is a certain discrepancy between the new record’s most refined moments (such as the fluttering R&B of “Hunnybee,” an album highlight) and its throwbacks to a messier, more carefree iteration of the band’s sound (such as “American Guilt,” a compelling rock song at its core but one that presents itself with a bemused sneer). Frontman Ruban Nielson can’t quite quit the band’s roots—and yet he doesn’t want to be shackled by expectations, either. It’s a tension that makes the album markedly more interesting, but also damns its success to a low ceiling: It can’t perfect a sound if it won’t commit to one.

Despite these scattershot aims, though, Sex & Food ultimately pulls a coherent world together. The second half of the album in particular locks into a palpable groove, from the aching melancholia of “This Doomsday” and accomplished pop of the album’s singles to the downbeat minimalism of “Not in Love We’re Just High” and throbbing disco of “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays.” These songs all work at a surface level, but are laced with subtleties that don’t necessarily unlock right away. Sex & Food can be a light and easy listen, but its underlying dualities and general restlessness make it a more complex and rewarding album than it first appears.

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