Words On American Absurdity
Ruban Nielson still sounds lost.
As the frontman and primary songwriter of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson is accustomed to baring his soul in the band’s music. On 2015’s Multi-Love, he openly discussed a polyamorous relationship he and his wife undertook together. The resulting confusion and emotional turmoil were the subject matter of the album, and made for a warped journey through his ever-changing ideas about love.
When the band announced their new record Sex & Food, it marked a distinct shift from the idealistic goal of love to the base reality of lust. When you start up the album, that titular shift is translated musically and lyrically.
On “Ministry of Alienation” a liquified guitar riff plays while Nielson sings “Amoral but not evil” in reference to our modern life. He offers a nihilistic bent to the American government and reliance on technology throughout the song, something far from a tune about his wife and their girlfriend.
“Major League Chemicals” is likely about dissociative drugs, matching the group’s psychedelic tendencies and aesthetic. The lyrics claim “major league chemicals make her grave” hinting at a tragic end to one acid trip too many. These are just a few of the moments on Sex & Food where Nielson seems to be wandering, trying to find something he can believe in.
Thankfully it isn’t all dark, the album has some incredibly upbeat instrumentals. “Hunnybee” is a psych-pop tune with Prince-esque strings that's easily danceable, and easily one of the brightest spots on the album. However, all the lighthearted fun seems to stop there. The first verse paints a lonely world, one that Nielson may inhabit.
“Warm rain and thunder
Days are getting darker
A week is such a long time
Eras rot like nature
Age of paranoia
Don't be such a modern stranger
Even when the album sounds as happy as it’ll get, Nielson’s neurotic lyrics cool down the party. There are still moments of hope, despite the somber world Nielson builds, he still insists that “love survives forever”. Though Sex & Food is less directly about love, there are still moments that explicitly reference it, or the lack thereof.
The hilarious (and far too relatable) “Not in Love We’re Just High” paints a picture of a duo who have their lives irreparably tangled together, and are now trying to detach. If there isn’t already an anthem for the complications of a “friends with benefits” relationship, this song makes a strong case for earning that distinction. Nielson’s stuttering delivery captures the constant indecision of trying to traverse a situationship.
“Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” is another standout track, and it makes the sense of impending doom that hovers over the album evident. The song’s claim of “growing in a vicious garden” seems like a perfect allegory for life in the USA.
As an ever-expanding nation that leads the world in many mediums, it’s clear that the U.S. has been in bloom on the world stage for quite some time. "Vicious" is a concise way to describe the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, and interventionism that have often solidified America’s international standing. The “vicious garden” of 2018 sounds like the beautiful, dark, and inherently twisted fantasy of our nation’s forefathers.
Somehow, the band makes the American condition sound like a party, one of their strangest quirks. It’s not that dark lyrics can’t be paired with bright instrumentals, but few groups utilize this tactic as often (or as well) as Unknown Mortal Orchestra. There are very few moments on the album that actually “sound sad”...unless you’re listening to the lyrics.
Nielson’s persistent paranoia doesn’t lift from the album, it’s easy to tell from just looking at the titles of the tracks. “Chronos Feasts on His Children” is followed by “American Guilt”, and “This Doomsday” follows two tracks later. The disillusionment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seem to weigh heavy on the album. Ironically enough, this isn’t Nielson’s intention in the slightest. In a recent interview with The FADER, he explained what he tried to convey:
“We're living in a heavy time. I had this feeling that there might be a lot of ambitious, heavy political records coming out. This record is not political at all, to me. I'm surrounded by everything that's happening, but it's just about my feelings.”
His feelings, intentionally or not, explore the absurdity, wonder, and depression of living in 2018. It feels essential, like sex and food.