By Safiya Hopfe
The roots of Ruban Nielson’s brainchild may have been quiet and anonymous, when the track “Ffunny Friends” was posted on bandcamp in 2010– but like that very song, within a day of its release, the waves made by Unknown Mortal Orchestra in experimental psychedelic rock have gone anything but unnoticed.
And rightfully so. Boasting a sound as exploratory as it is accessible, and managing storylines of love and alienation with synthy elegance and unpredictability, they have truly established themselves as their own distinct masters of modern rock.
Then again, what is rock? And what about it is modern? When the rambunctious single “American Guilt” came out, Nielson declared that he, “in a perverse way… wanted to embrace this abandoned genre of rock music that I keep reading is ‘dead’ and invite people to hear what this living dead genre sounds like in the UMO universe.” Bassist Jake Portrait begs the question: who gets to decide what’s what? The music industry has become a terrain of raging categorization, but sometimes this can come as a bit of a burden. Sometimes, the best art has no core theme.
And while a record such as Multi-Love has been interpreted as a concept album, and understandably so, that isn’t quite what UMO is about– especially this time around. Sex & Food is just meant to be a record about life, the world, and being a human being. There isn’t much more to it than that– and why does there need to be?
Sex & Food- a record whose title gracefully encapsulates its transparency and universality– swoops effortlessly in on themes of necessity, indulgence, and the inevitable isolation of the modern world. It does so with no blatant direction or purpose but honesty, and for this it stands out: it is as raw as it is instrumentally dreamy, funky, and everything in between. Distinctly 21st century in its attitude, and yet as subtly and stunningly reflective as ever on the Prince-esque influences UMO’s work always seems to boast, it achieves timelessness.
Portrait describes the best work as happening when he and Nielson are in the moment with the studio at their disposal, not with a clear-cut vision or method in mind, but a willingness to dabble and feel out ideas
as they come. Although a lot happens behind closed doors when Ruban hides himself out in the basement to brainstorm and write– and though there was reportedly a bit less of that this time around, there was still plenty– it really is the process that decides the product. Despite the intricacies of Nielson’s lyrical work as the narrative storyteller he isn’t often enough credited as being, and a riff here and there predetermined and then tried on for size when the two come together to work, the core substance of the music truly does evolve in the moment. Things materialize as they happen– they do not happen because they have been previously ordained to do so in a certain way.
And by embracing the flow of art as something organic rather than forced, UMO has produced something truly balanced with idiosyncratic quality. If anything, it can be argued that Sex & Food is their most cohesive feat yet. It recognizes with acute self-awareness and immaculate impulse all that UMO has learned to do, and do well. And it does it all more gracefully than ever.
This week Unknown Mortal Orchestra share the remix of Sex & Food standout “Hunnybee” by NYC lo-fi house producer Baltra.Unknown Mortal Orchestra