The 28-year-old vocalist's new double album blends folk, jazz, classical, and art-rock, with probing lyricism.

By Marcus J. Moore
May 14, 2020 at 12:30 PM EDT
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Credit: Alexander Black

For the past six years, Moses Sumney has tried to shake the labels given to him by critics and casual fans. He’s a black man with an incredible voice, so he must be a soul singer. But Sumney, a 28-year-old vocalist and producer from Los Angeles, has never just been one thing, it’s that people didn’t listen hard enough. On 2014’s Mid-City Island and 2016’s Lamentations, he sang of isolation through a sublime, one-of-a-kind falsetto that grew more beguiling the higher it went. Beneath his voice would be an acoustic guitar, a bleak synth, and not much else. While that sounds like a recipe for gloomy music, it never came across that way. Through songs like “Plastic” and “Doomed,” Sumney tapped into deep emotional trauma — the pain of heartbreak, the challenge of giving and receiving love — and then filtered it through a broad lens. By singing about it so fervently, he was able to reach those who’ve endured the same strife but didn’t know how to express themselves. His openness let listeners know that it’s okay to not be okay. 

But græ, Sumney’s new double album, is unlike anything he’s released. For one, it’s louder; this isn’t the night-themed folk-oriented music of his recent past. It’s also bolder, full of stadium-sized anthems designed for wider audiences. Take “Virile,” the album’s lead single, a booming pop track with sky-scraping drums, bass, and guitar. The sound alone is a shock, given the quiet calm of Sumney's 2017 full-length debut Aromanticism, which felt like a one-on-one conversation between him and the listener. Where his previous work often depicted a man tumbling through despair, “Virile” verges closer to a positive declaration, as Sumney pushes through darkness toward a semblance of light. græ is quite literal in that sense, finding the singer somewhere in the middle. On the song “Neither/Nor,” he says it outright: that when he was a little boy, he “fell in love with the in-between.”  

Credit: Jagjaguwar

Sumney’s last LP was cloaked in shades of black, with pensive lyrics that explored the absence of romantic love. But græ wades into a space where things are still a bit hazy. Listening to it is like flipping through a worn diary. The songs seem to pull from his own personal history, whether it’s a traumatic experience as a preteen (“Two Dogs”) or his time as a young private school student in Southern California (“Conveyor”). On the former, Sumney sings of a pair of animals — “one was boot black, the other whiter than a health food store” — and how they died on his back porch after ingesting human medicine. The latter likens private school to being prepped for American capitalism: “Join the workforce, the colony.” On “Cut Me,” though, Sumney doesn’t just wallow in suffering, he has an epiphany, realizing that he needs agony to feel alive: “Masochistic kisses,” he quips, “are how I thrive.” “Polly" meanwhile delves into the frustrations that arise in situationships: No matter what you do for the other person, sometimes it just isn’t good enough. Here, Sumney volleys between joy and sadness, satisfaction and restlessness. “I don’t wanna live here,” he declares. “Sometimes don’t wanna live at all.”  

Elsewhere, Sumney recruits actor Ezra Miller and writer Taiye Selasi on “also also also and and and” to help break the emotional and creative constraints that have beset him so far. “I insist upon my right to be multiple,” they declare. “Even more so, I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity. What I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it.” To that end, græ finds him trying to be, well, everything, and through a convergence of folk, jazz, classical, and art-rock, along with his probing lyricism, Sumney has managed to produce a sonic marvel. A

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