Moses Sumney Explores Identity and Isolation on the Dazzling græ

Folk, soul, jazz, ambient and classical music come together with a world-class voice

Music Reviews Moses Sumney
Moses Sumney Explores Identity and Isolation on the Dazzling græ

It’s a special thing to watch a promising artist rise to meet the moment in front of them.

Some never quite get there. They retreat from the pressure or they run into a ceiling that’s lower than expected. Sometimes bad timing or unlucky circumstances prove insurmountable.

And then there’s folks like Moses Sumney, the prodigiously talented and artistically ambitious American singer-songwriter who has relentlessly resisted the shortest path to stardom over the past several years. With a stunning voice, a striking figure and a lot of famous friends on his side, he could’ve at any point submitted himself to the hit machine and made a straightforward pop/R&B record that likely would’ve fast-tracked Sumney to household-name status.

Instead, he has taken an omnivorous approach to his music, absorbing folk, soul, jazz, ambient and classical music into his unique sound. Still, his debut full-length—2017’s Aromanticism, an intimate exploration of lovelessness—sparked a fire that even Sumney couldn’t sidestep. Anticipation for a follow-up has run high in recent months, stoked by a series of gorgeous singles and an unconventional roll-out: Sumney released part one of his sophomore album, græ, in February, and part two arrived last week.

Now that all 20 songs are out, it’s clear Moses Sumney has taken one giant step forward from Aromanticism, and in doing so has bounded off the precipice of expectation into a dazzling unknown. Clocking in at just over an hour long, the album is a vast landscape of words and sounds that stretch far across the artistic spectrum, but at the same time feel very much like members of the same extended family. Each shares a certain amount of DNA, but their inherent individualism is what gives Sumney his increasingly singular style.

Threaded throughout græ is a series of six tracks featuring spoken-word passages that lay out the album’s primary themes of identity, multiplicity, loneliness, love and the grey areas in between, where most of life is lived. In “boxes,” an ambiguous voice more or less details Sumney’s approach to his work over glitchy dream-sounds: “I truly believe that people who define you control you,” the voice says, “and the most significant thing that any person can do—but especially black women and men—is to think about who gave them their definitions and rewrite those definitions for themselves.”

The rest of græ finds Sumney doing exactly that. A short track titled “jill/jack” freely swaps the words “masculine,” “feminine,” “he” and “she,” while on the minimalist guitar tune “Keeps Me Alive,” Sumney asserts his humanity at a helium-high pitch. “The truth is I want the same thing that you do,” he sings, “Childlike curiosity about my fate is the only thing that makes me stay.” Later, in the languid rocker “Bless Me”—one of album’s clear peaks—he unfurls this devastating gem of a verse:

You must be an angel / Your conscience is clean
Why would you soil yourself / With a monster like me
If the good lord sent ya / The good lord can take ya back
I hope when he comes for you / You illuminate the path

Lyrics aren’t the only vehicle for Sumney’s evasion of classification. Sonically, græ is one zigzag after another. “Cut Me,” for example, pairs his crystalline falsetto with a bleary horn arrangement, an army of synths and a bassline plucked straight from the songbook of ’60s soul, while “Neither/Nor” is built around a beautiful repeated riff played on the kora, a stringed instrument popular in West Africa. (Sumney’s parents are from Ghana and he lived there for several years.) And “Virile,” where harp and flute flutter against earth-moving beats and bass, jumps from the speakers as another one of græ’s highlights.

Elsewhere, Sumney recounts a disturbing childhood memory on “Two Dogs,” which frames his versatile voice with a gentle patchwork of synths programmed by Daniel Lopatin, aka acclaimed electronic experimentalist Oneohtrix Point Never. Lopatin is credited on most of græ’s songs, and he’s not the only recognizable name on the record: Thundercat, James Blake, Jill Scott, British jazz players Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia and novelist Michael Chabon all appear as well. It is a testament to the centripetal force of Sumney’s presence that the album sounds like him and only him, from top to bottom.

That’s a very good thing, but it doesn’t mean græ is perfect. Like just about any 20-song album, it’d probably be stronger with just 15 or 16 tracks, and a few of the more deliberate numbers in part two would be easy targets for trimming. But a few skippable songs don’t change the scale of Sumney’s accomplishment. With an auspicious debut in his rearview mirror and a blinding future ahead, he made an album that crystalizes the current state of his art and advances his worldview while at the same time clearing a path for whatever he wants to do next. Perhaps the only thing more exciting than græ will be seeing where Moses Sumney goes from here.

Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.

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