Review Summary: A soulful record lacking in soul.
There’s always been a soulfulness to Ruban Nielson’s sound. Even in the scuzzy nascent stages of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a melodic richness gave shape to the wonky bedroom aesthetic; ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ and ‘How Can U Luv Me’ are ‘60s Motown standards dressed in psychedelic drag, their classic chord progressions pleasantly obfuscated by warbling saturation and runaway reverbs. Multi-Love
(2015), with all its colourful eccentricities, saw Nielson finally embrace his natural disposition for pop-oriented songwriting. In many ways, Sex & Food
feels like a continuation of its predecessor; the R&B croons, the effortless grooves, the Prince worship—that’s all still here. The warmth and exuberance that characterised Multi-Love
, however, is long gone. Instead, Sex & Food
is riddled with nihilism and technophobic anxiety—it’s alienating, claustrophobic and, in small doses, sublime.
Sex & Food
—perhaps intentionally—never truly feels like a complete, singular record. Songs like ‘Major League Chemicals’ and ‘American Guilt’ recall the unhinged psychedelia of Unknown Mortal Orchestra
(2011)—their bombastic riffing highlights Nielson’s technical proficiency as much as it does his self-professed Hendrix obsession. Elsewhere, the spidery musical acrobatics of ‘Ministry of Alienation’ and ‘The Internet of Love (That Way)’ inhabit a twilight zone somewhere between Smokey Robinson
and David Bowie
. ‘This Doomsday’ is an acoustic oddity sufficiently weird enough to resemble a King Gizzard & the Wizard Lizard
b-side, while ‘Hunnybee’—full of staccato strings and Chic
-esque bass lines—sounds like futuristic disco lean enough to study to. If all this esotericism and genre-hopping sounds disorienting, you’re right—oftentimes, Sex & Food
is an overwhelmingly discombobulating listen.
A sparse, soulful ballad at first, ‘Not In Love We’re Just High’ gradually unravels into a bizarre, obnoxious cacophony of whirring keys and flanging drums. An autopsy of a narcotically-induced romance—“said we're not in love we just hang out high as kites,” Nielson proclaims—is fitting subject matter for a song so disconcertingly subversive: instead of plucking your heartstrings, it tears them out altogether, leaving nothing but jarring indifference. This emptiness reflects the vapidity of modern life of which Sex & Food
concerns itself—a soulful record lacking in soul.