The magnificently talented artist releases his most powerful statement yet, one that is sure to win him a whole new level of reverence.
Originally published on 5/23/20.
Moses Sumney is a marvel; in just a few short years, the now Asheville-based singer-songwriter has become one of the most beguiling artists in experimental pop. Combining elements of soul, R&B, folk, and jazz, Sumney has created a unique sound that is only accentuated by his inherent creativity and artistry. The most consistently amazing part of his work, though, has to be his voice. Exhibiting incredible vocal control and range, Sumney’s voice is absolutely enthralling and capable of fully displaying just about every emotion under the sun. In the blink of an eye, he can jump from a warm baritone to a soaring falsetto while never missing a single note. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him one of the most gifted singers in modern music. And that’s without even getting into his incredible ear for sonic detail and proclivity for fruitful collaborations with fellow producers and artists; bottom line, this guy is going places.
Back in 2014, Sumney self-released his first EP Mid-City Island, a project that showcased a great deal of potential, particularly in his voice. Eventually he signed a record deal with Indiana-based independent label Jagjaguwar Records, where he released his second EP Lamentations and, a year later, his debut album Aromanticism in 2017. Displaying a massively improved skill in singing and songwriting, as well as a broadened emotional palette, Aromanticism firmly placed Sumney on the map and led to immediate critical acclaim, establishing him as an artist to watch.
However, Aromanticism’s biggest flaw by far was that it was too short; its 35 wonderful minutes simply flew by too quickly, leaving the listener desperate for more. As if fully aware of this, Sumney has given us a sprawling double album with græ (pronounced “grey”), this time running over an hour long. (He also decided to do it piecemeal, something not seen often in music; the first part arrived back in February, and the second in May.) With græ, Sumney showcases a complete lack of creative restraint, blowing open the doors that we only got to peek through on his previous projects. Collaborating with fellow artists such as Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), James Blake, John Congleton, Thundercat, and FKJ, Sumney has created his most musically, sonically, and thematically varied work to date. The excellent græ serves as by far the greatest testament yet to his talent as a singer, songwriter, producer, and collaborator.
Throughout græ, Sumney and his associates craft an enchanting soundscape filled with evolving string sections, twinkling synthesizers, foundational bass, gorgeously strummed acoustic guitars, and perfectly utilized, often spare percussion. This expanded instrumental stage is perfect for Sumney’s chameleonic voice as he explores his more than four-octave range, yielding results that are almost uniformly stunning. Whether it’s a chilly electronic landscape (“Me in 20 Years”), a satisfyingly anthemic groove (“Virile”), a somber fingerpicked guitar ballad (“Polly”), or a heavily atmospheric, soaring rock song (“Bless Me”), græ boasts one of the largest and yet most cohesive sonic playgrounds I’ve heard this year.
There are a lot of great instrumentals on græ, but the album’s sonic crowning achievement has to be the album’s first song “Cut Me.” Sporting a beautifully arranged, quiet storm-inspired musical backdrop, the song is a wonderful exercise in restraint; for the vast majority of its four minutes, it remains reserved, the instrumentation minimal yet always interesting. Artificial bass warms the ears, plinking piano chords make occasional appearances along with synth motifs, sparse, almost tribal percussion keeps the song slowly moving, and soft trombones dance over all of it. This all creates an endlessly enjoyable, smile-inducing musical landscape that keeps up the delight for its whole runtime. Finally, in its last 40 seconds, the song erupts into a brief coda that allows the entire sound to become exponentially fuller and more expansive, marking a gratifying end to the track and establishing “Cut Me” as arguably græ’s best song.
Lyrically, græ is Sumney’s most compelling body of work to date. Many different subjects are covered here, yet the thematic flow of the album always manages to feel cohesive; this is only amplified by Sumney’s vocals and the dense backing instrumentation. With his songwriting prowess, Sumney details one-sided relationships (“Polly”), rails against hyper-masculinity (“Virile”), encourages a partner to be more open about their feelings (“Colouour”), and laments the persecution of those who speak out against injustice (“Bystanders”). Additionally, there are moments here that are bound to make some listeners break down and cry – “Me in 20 Years” devastatingly depicts someone who is completely unable to get over the dissolution of a loving relationship. Not only that, but scattered throughout the tracklist are a handful of brief spoken-word interludes poetically laying out subjects such as isolation, love, gender identity, and the definition of blackness. The writing on græ is graceful, mesmerizing, and rarely anything less.
Out of all the heavy thematic material on græ, arguably none is more affecting than that of “Two Dogs.” The song details a tragedy that occurred during the six-year span of Sumney and his family living in Ghana, where his parents lived before his birth and moved back to with him in tow when he was ten years old. They owned two dogs named Yin and Yang, so named due to their respective black and white colors. (Though the song is fantastically sad, Sumney notably manages to throw a bit of humor into the mix early on when he describes one dog as “whiter than a health food store.”) Sumney sings about how the two would play in the yard, barking loudly all the while. During this time, his parents kept medicine on the back porch that was saved up for donation to the poor. Unfortunately, Yin and Yang ultimately ended up getting into the medicine and eating it, killing them both; Sumney found their bodies on the back porch soon after, leaving the then-thirteen-year-old traumatized. “Strange how what heals can also kill,” he croons. As someone who lost a beloved canine very suddenly last year, this one hit me especially hard.
græ is by no means a perfect album, though; while there’s not a single bad song on it, there are a handful of tracks that definitely could have been improved. For example, the arrangements for “Gagarin” and “Lucky Me” needed more fleshing out; “Gagarin,” while gorgeous, seems kind of aimless and overlong, and the instrumental for “Lucky Me” isn’t much more than a muted synth landscape that also overstays its welcome. Meanwhile, the tracks “Conveyor” and “Bystanders” are both great, but the former ends before it can make a truly satisfying musical statement, and the latter risks blending in too much with the rest of the album’s second half. Lastly, while said second half does fit very well next to the first, there are times when the two parts can clash somewhat; Part 2 is, after all, generally more sonically minimal than Part 1, and the contrast can be a little much on occasion.
Nonetheless, græ is nothing if not a marvelous album, a wonderfully creative opus that is sure to turn even more heads toward Sumney’s music. Alongside his numerous collaborators, the insanely talented singer-songwriter has crafted one of the strongest albums of the year. Endlessly listenable, emotionally unwavering, and thoroughly enjoyable, græ completely avoids the sophomore slump so many artists have fallen victim to before, and it is guaranteed to expand his own impact as an artist for the foreseeable future.
Listen to græ on Apple Music or Spotify below.