In the totality of the rock canon, psychedelia bears one of the worst reputations. Even worse, dissatisfied rock ‘n’ rollers would be quick to dissent if it weren’t an unspoken rule that the only unwavering fans of psychedelia fall under the canopy of brain-fried drug enthusiasts or disenfranchised stooges who are too contrarian to digest the low-orbit pomp of AOR. To appreciate the hallucinogenic splendor of psychedelia requires an appreciation for sonic saturation, not just in infectious hooks but mind-bending effects and frenetic production techniques—but in defense of its detractors, it’s an overwhelming experience when the tenets of maximalism take hold on its visionaries. Thankfully, there’s a pretty generous thing called “pop” to dilute what sensitive ears may fear.
If you’ve heard a sliver of what this decade has offered in the way of accessible indie/psych amalgams, you’ll, at the very least, manage to pick up on some of the hype that’s produced some of the vastest albums in the last few years. One of the more prominent players in the revivalist by-line, multi-instrumentalist and acid-washed proselyte Ruban Nielson, didn’t rush into the spotlight with full expectations. In the lingering wake of the MP3 blogosphere phenomenon, the former Mint Chicks leader struck his second renaissance under the moniker Unknown Mortal Orchestra—the breakout in question was the freakish psych ditty of “Ffunny Ffriends,” which continues to make its rounds to this day. Nielsen’s homespun recordings cropped up in a proper debut album issued in 2011, followed by 2013’s brawny II, and lastly topped out by 2015’s uniquely conceptual and clear-cut Multi-Love.
Thus, it’s surprising to hear Sex & Food, the band’s fourth album, as a guileless return to form rather than a logical step forward into mainstream fullness. This trajectory isn’t a mere allegation, but a sign of Nielson’s aptness at transforming his once-spindly compositions into full-band likenesses in a compressed amount of time. Nonetheless, it’s still a stretch to label Unknown Mortal Orchestra as the stoic answer to this decade’s psychedelic orgy of a revivalist movement—brief introduction “A God Called Hubris,” in all of its nitrous oxide-fueled silliness, will refresh your notions of Nielson as a hackneyed, but talented arranger. Even if the seven-year span of UMO’s existence seems meager, there are wistful split seconds of déjà vu from Nielson’s discography, which attests to Sex & Food’s sampling of past explorations flocking together to form a fleetingly sleek final product. Finger-picked and scantily visceral, “This Doomsday” will unhesitatingly summon the bucolic harmonies of II’s “From the Sun,” but the former is far from a desperate repeat of Nielson’s most memorable works.
In hindsight, the seventies hue cast over Multi-Love accentuated the softer edge of Nielson’s songwriting even at its most sonically raucous. Two years after, Sex & Food withdraws the low-fidelity freakouts of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut to a tantamount degree without leading to the idea of imitation. Take the waterlogged “Major League Chemicals” or the fuzz bottleneck of lead single “American Guilt,” and these flashes of snazzy technical work construct some of the album’s more swaggering bleats for attention. Warped and glossed with an armada of tremolo gadgets, “Not in Love We’re Just High” siphons the sexy out of the sixties, barely raising above a tripped-out whisper. The sun-splattered chorus (“Said we’re not in love / We’re just halfway out of our mind / And we hang out high as kites”) might scream potential slacker rock hit, but Nielson’s contagious and carefree pop formula suggests something more grandiose. Look no further than the willowy pomp of “Hunnybee” and the wistful space of the exceptional closer “If You’re Going to Break Yourself” to discover the intimacy in Nielson’s craft.
Whatever Sex & Food wants to make you feel through its druggy semantics and equally trippy soundscapes, it’s an inevitably moving sentiment at play here. Middling in its tracklist are some of Nielson’s career-defining performances, although as a sum of its parts, Sex & Food settles between much-needed upheaval and a pleasant update in the flimsy annals of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. For a songwriter whose talents always seem directed in a particular headroom without calculation, Nielson’s latest batch of uppers wrestles with psychedelia as an emotional tool rather than a stylistic pulse—it’s all too good to be true at times, but it’s worthy of multiple listens.