Ruben Nielson’s honey-glazed vocals and lo-fi instrumentals deliver a message about life’s harsh realities with a spoonful of sugar to take away its bitterness.
It was monsoon season in Vietnam, and the Unknown Mortal Orchestra were holed up in an Airbnb listening to Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” The trip was just one of many that UMO had taken amidst the creation of their upcoming album, Sex & Food, and Ruben Nielson, the group’s founder and creative center, seized their days of rainy isolation to break out the recording equipment. Cut off and missing home, Nielson crafted the track “Hunnybee”: A distant message to his daughter, Iris.
Listen: “Hunnybee” – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
The song opens with a brief interlude of spectral strings before hopping into a soulful balancing act between sleepy jazz and eerie R&B. Nielson opens:
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
The lyrics speaks of darkness, but in the song’s accompanying music video – an animation created by Greg Sharp (Truba Animation) – we delve into a hallucination of a speeding bullet-train where a female backpacker onboard reads and takes in the fleeting beauty that whoosh by her window. However, unbeknownst to her, the world births little presages.
Watch: “Hunnybee” – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Over a cutting guitar solo from Nielson, a heavy suitcase above our traveler creeps closer to the edge with every bump of the railcar, a pin on the train’s wheel ominously jangles, and the cabin’s fire-extinguisher is revealed to be forebodingly outdated. A travesty seems all but assured as the video nears its end and our attention is diverted to termites gnawing away at the base of a branch overhanging the train tracks. But then, the train speeds by unharmed, and the branch falls onto the tracks seconds later.
Now seven, Nielson’s daughter is growing up blissfully unaware of the world’s problems, and in an interview with GQ, he said that he wanted “to encode [the] song with advice or wisdom” for her to look back on when she has reached adulthood. A time capsule of sorts, the song’s chorus serves as Nielson’s direct message to her:
There’s no such thing
As sweeter a sting
Through this paradoxical metaphor, Nielsen speaks of a harsh reality that all of life’s hardships sting the same way. Certainly a cutting message, but despite all of this, Nielson’s honey-glazed vocals and lo-fi instrumentals deliver this realism with a spoonful of sugar to take away its bitterness. It leaves this reality for what it is: neither good, nor evil. So, he asks of his “angel,” take misfortunes as they come and do not wallow in what has or will possibly go wrong in the world. Just appreciate the fleeting moments of bliss.
It’s a lesson that we can all surely live by.
📸 © Neil Krug