If Ruban Nielson were an animal, he'd most certainly be an octopus, due to his many-limbed approach to music and his ability to squeeze into the narrow spaces between genres. Sex & Food finds Nielson and Unknown Mortal Orchestra displaying the same versatility, albeit with the rounded edge of Multi-Love traded in for a spikier fourth album. Nielson has always been hard to pin down; he operates on the fringes of certain genres, leaning in to borrow ideas but warping them enough that they would feel out of place side by side with their influences. The record touches on many of his trademark styles, including folk, R&B, and funk, but adds a dose of riff-centric rock. However, while it's true that he can weld both the loud and quiet ends of the spectrum, it's still his softer side that shines brightest.
The fuzzier approach heard on "Major League Chemicals" and "American Guilt" is degraded and grating by design, obfuscating the all-out nature of both tracks. This is rectified by the time "Hunnybee" rolls around -- the first major highlight -- which manages to take a softer approach yet includes a standout guitar solo. The soft guitar prevails throughout "Chronos Feast on His Children," highlighting Nielson's penchant for contrast, as it leads directly into "American Guilt" with all its scuzz and vigor. Multi-Love included a handful of funkier cuts, but here it falls to "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays" to remind you that this specific side of his songwriting hasn't faded entirely; the same can be said for the R&B-skimming "Not in Love We're Just High." It's hard to fault the album overall; even though there's a trend for magpie-esque records, Sex & Food still has an instantly identifiable sound. It may not reach the peaks of the Orchestra's previous album but it's stuffed with ideas and proves that Nielson's consistently shifting tone finds creative strength where others might stretch themselves too thin.