Moses Sumney Defies Categorization With an Insistent Shriek on Ambitious Double Album ‘Græ’
Moses Sumney is an artist who strives to defy genre. In 2020, when the accessibility of music warrants immense hybridization, the same could be said about any artist worth consideration. Sumney, however, is very serious about proclaiming the fact. As if it weren’t obvious from his profoundly original voice, he has drawn attention to his peculiarity with increasingly avant-garde musical stylings, which reach their apex on his double album “Græ.” Sumney’s 2017 debut “Afromanticism” introduced an enigmatic strain of soul that combined bare, primal candor with lofty, fanciful conceits, and the followup expands ambitiously on that vision. Sumney dropped the first installment in February, and now releases the full package, with eight new tracks, a sprawling artistic statement that is a challenge to digest, but impressive at any rate.
Born in California to Ghanaian parents, Sumney has resisted people’s attempts to pigeonhole him, and now categorically rejects such attempts, enlisting author Taiye Selasi, whose work is famous for its explorations of the “multinational” idea, on several spoken word tracks. The opener “Insula” informs us that “Isolation comes from ‘insula,’ which means island” — hardly a profound idea. But this is hardly an album about lyrics. On “Cut Me,” Sumney’s voice takes center stage, all piercing idiosyncrasies on display, unadulterated. The sparse arrangement makes the few musical elements more meaningful, and the smallest gesture speaks volumes — Motown horns and backup singers, a plodding bassline, and keys that hit just the right notes at the right time, a perfect instance of minimalism. There’s a crescendo that absolutely makes the song, and then a reverse crescendo that even outdoes that, sending chills, and making it clear that you’re in for something different.
On “In Bloom,” an expressive string arrangement makes the perfect conduit for Sumney. As he darts every which way in his unhindered, free-flowing melodic maneuvers, the strings pick up on fleeting frequencies and embellish them just enough to render an otherwise unmusical, erratic episode a rich, cinematic experience. “Virile” begins with what sounds like Sumney running through voice exercises — the type that the most pretentious of singers do in public, stretching and contorting their faces into alien countenances and producing even more alien noises. In a way, Sumney seems just the type to partake in such a thing, and this album seems, largely, a marathon of such activities. A few seconds in, Sumney has already spanned a vast expanse, soaring to distant heights and zig-zagging in a flash back down to level. A beat drops, providing just enough of an anchor to give some form to his fluid motions, and the track takes off into the stratosphere. All pretensions aside, you have to hand it to Sumney after this display.
“Conveyor” begins with an industrial stomp, a marked change of scenery from the spacious sets thus far. Sumney gets off to his usual bellowing as the track builds and breaks, allowing for another epic, glass-shattering howl. When the beat picks up again, Sumney puts on a staccato hiccup, riffing off the rhythm in an edgy, mechanical sputter, as the regularity makes the inevitable spotlight gestures more meaningful. The song segues seamlessly into “Boxes,” in which a pitch-shifting voice speaks a few insights over the rhythm. There’s plenty of profundity in a few words, particularly “Dissatisfaction seems like the natural byproduct of identification.” After all, all labels are reductive, subjective, and inadequately expressive — which raises an important question: WTF are you even listening to?
Of course, Sumney keeps you pondering, shifting shapes on the next track, “Gagarin,” this time giving his own voice the pitch-shifting treatment. Considering how uniquely expressive his voice is, the unnatural treatment has a mind-bending effect, blurring the lines between the organic and artificial. The barebones backdrop of keys and drums tap into the same type of soulful feel as D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” and what started off as a low-key diversion takes a wild left turn, as layers pile atop one another, and a helium crescendo brings one of the album’s most dramatic moments. “Jill/Jack” enlists Jill Scott to alternate with Sumney in a short monologue, beginning “He had that masculine thing down / Shoulders and back straight.” When it comes time for a repetition, a sweeping shred of sound enters the mix, with the word “she” brushing up against “he.” This makes sense in light of Sumney’s aesthetic. If we take falsetto, essentially a means of the male imitating the female, as a starting point, whatever Sumney does magnifies it at least tenfold, testament to the anti-labeling gospel expressed in “Boxes.” “Colouour” begins with a brass bit that couldn’t come at a better time, the free jazz stylings so consistent in spirit with Sumney’s singing that it seems horns are simply filling in for him. Midway, the track turns into intimate, dim-lit speakeasy fare, until choral vocals enter in layers, and harmonies blend in a way that justifies the vowel-shifting title, making for a surreal, Lynchian moment. There’s another seamless transition into “Also also also and and and,” essentially a continuation of “Boxes,” with multiplying voices demonstrating the sentiment, “I insist upon my right to be multiple” in real time.
On “Neither/Nor,” intricate, harp-like guitar lines, unraveling in cascades, make a becoming backdrop for Sumney’s reflective musings, which reach a chilling apex upon a midsong bellow, whereupon the track erupts into a funky full band romp. The jagged vocal interjections that follow, with their wildly sporadic melodies, make for a labyrinthine odyssey that builds to a staggering dramatic peak, showcasing Sumney at his endearing maddest. “Polly” is a stripped-down guitar and vocals track, at moments echoing the singular stylings of Finnish singer-songwriter Mirel Wagner. It becomes apparent midway that the titular “Polly” alludes to polyamory, and if this seems a bit tawdry, it gets worse, with lyrics like “Am I just your Friday dick?” Fortunately, Sumney’s vocal contortions tend to obscure much of his wording. Still, one would expect music of such lofty avant posturing to be at least maybe a bit more clever with its lyrics.
“Two Dogs” is an appropriate beginning for the second installment of “græ,” as it revisits various themes, condensing them into a momentous, revitalizing number, cinematic and portentous, with the nature of an overture. Strings lead the way again, and Sumney meanders through a sinuous path, combining R&B and modern classical sensibilities in a way that recalls the insular experiments of early Dirty Projectors. “Bystanders” strips away all instrumentation, then reintroduces it slowly, and Sumney is unsparing with his strident squealing. With so little of a buffer, one has no choice but to face the onslaught in all its glaring fervor, and it makes a case for powerful art being able to produce a strong reaction, whether positive or negative. Next comes “Me In 20 Years,” which Sumney released a while back, and it’s easy to see why, as it provides a snapshot of Sumney at his most awe-inspiringly eccentric. It begins bare and frankly difficult, much like the preceding track, but takes on majestic proportions as layer build. When a beat drops and choral swells abound, the track becomes truly transcendent, much thanks to production from Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never, who told Sumney the song “sounded like an old lady screaming to herself in the middle of Whole Foods,” to which Sumney attests, “I knew then and there that he was the right collaborator to take [the song] to a catastrophic level.” Indeed, the song might surpass any other in its emotional peaks. Lopatin’s production and Sumney’s vocals together end up sounding quite like the work of James Blake, which is no great surprise as Blake has collaborated with Sumney, reworking the “Afromanticism” cut “Make Out In My Car.”
While the first installment of “Græ” allowed respite from Sumney’s formidable high register with the spoken word interludes and such, the second is less merciful, with nearly every song diving headlong into piercing, up-front, often unaccompanied crooning. On “Keeps Me Alive,” Sumney returns to an acoustic guitar backing, and goes to town even by his standards, sounding at moments as if he is cooing to a baby, at others as if advertising for a decongestant. The elegant guitar and vocal interplay is phenomenal, but overall, this is a track for only the most fearless devotees. “Lucky Me” brings more of the same, with minimal orchestration taking the place of guitar. As if Sumney’s singing weren’t already overbearing, tracks like this seems to have been recorded with him too close to the mic. You can feel him breathing over you, and his incessant whining sounds too loud, no matter how low you turn the volume. Near the end, vocal harmonies come to the rescue, as Sumney fills the lower end, giving the listener some room to breathe and appreciate what is on display.
A brief interlude, “And So I Come to Isolation,” revisits the opening theme, with a voice professing the realization that she has been “islanded” her whole life. At this point, one can only hope Sumney isn’t complaining, having somehow amassed the following he has with music so decidedly insular. “Bless Me” brings a welcome moment of balance, placing Sumney atop a novel backdrop of lo fi guitar strumming, slickly sliding bass, and swiveling fades of noise, winding through a serpentine melody that escalates to truly exhilarating ends. When the saturated blend of voices finally breaks under its own pressure and gives way to Sumney’s lone trademark piercing falsetto, it’s a rare instance of purposeful use. “Before You Go,” an unassuming afterthought on the last track, brings things to closure with the recurrent female voice returning for a final spoken word bit, offering some terse ruminations on love and separation, over repetitions of “the ache,” as a brittle, unresolved bassline echoes her sentiment.
“Græ” is a release perfectly suited for the double album format. It’s a shame that Sumney has effectively defeated the purpose by releasing the two halves together. This is the type of music that calls for digestion in small doses. Consider that Sumney’s art is avant garde in its very essence. If you stripped the recordings of all the adventurous, off-kilter arrangements and productions, and simplified the songwriting to its very core, you would be left with that singular, shrieking falsetto that is his greatest claim to fame. Beginning with such a conventionally unpalatable sound, Sumney is wise to have taken the avant route, building on his strengths. His latest album is a mixed bag of the best and worst outre tendencies. On one hand, the music can seem overblown, with more style than substance. This is especially true in regard to the lyrics. For all its spoken word segments, delivered with such pomp and gravitas, the album hardly says anything original. Nevertheless, its central emphasis on casting aside labels and embracing individuality is meaningful enough on its own, and there could hardly be a better artist than Sumney to demonstrate the validity of this gospel. The album more than makes up musically for what it lacks lyrically, with thrilling, dense, daring arrangements that complement, magnify, and sublimate all Sumney’s eccentricities. Sumney’s originality and his technical vocal skill are both undeniable, and at its finest moments, “Græ” is out of this world. While we would be ill advised to give this music a label, as Sumney himself has reminded us, we might reasonably describe it as derivative of R&B, and this is certainly among the most innovatively creative music in that genre as of late.
“Græ” is available May 15 on Apple Music.