Since slowly making his presence known in the mid-point of the last decade, Moses Sumney is quickly becoming one of the most notably ambiguous auteurs in art-pop and neo-soul — two landscapes packed to the brim with ambiguous auteurs in their own right. What sets Sumney apart, however, is his ability to fully embody the music he creates, often adapting the fluidity and versatility of his sound in everything from his vocals, to his performances, to his aesthetics, to his character.
Possessing a subtle but vast vocal range, Sumney’s first two EPs built the structure for what would become Aromanticism, his 2017 debut — an album that would be unique in its rejection of love in music, as well as the abstract sound that he is now associated with. Three years later, we have græ, the first part of which was released in February, the whole shebang of which was released last Friday. With the difficult second album, this is likely to be either a massive flop, or a defining release for the artist — no græ area.
It’s difficult to really put words to an album so constantly shifting and tilting. To try and quantify something with so little constants makes this job very difficult. It seems to elude critique at every turn, making me feel like the Wile E. Coyote to Sumney’s androgynous, angelic Roadrunner.
There is a very hard-to-grasp notion to this album that, if not backed up with appropriate innovation, could make it overly pretentious and difficult to get along with. Immediately apparent, however, is how totally forward-thinking græ is. From its futuristic instrumentation, to Sumney’s vocals, which are, at the same time, aesthetically delicate and powerfully delivered.
The first track to really showcase these is Virile — a kaleidoscope of a song that catchy in its looping, at points psychedelic, percussion and lyrical mantras. Like almost every other song here, it moves at perfect pace through multiple instrumental moods, lending it a bewildering complexity that’ll leave your head spinning, but also unable to deny, at the very least, the potential Sumney has as an arranger. In addition, it’s very clear that the artist is one of hell of a singer, punctuating some of Virile‘s emotional peaks with a heavenly, full falsetto.
Despite this, there are moments on græ where the impact of Sumney’s vocals does suffer as a result from the heavy processing that has obviously gone into them. Not to suggest that this is anything other than an artistic choice, the thick layers of vocals, when used efficiently, are choral and fulfilling. However, in some of the record’s more strenuous moments it slips from artistry into the obtuse, removing much of the melodic satisfaction from the instrumental. Either way, the performances here are the standout trait of the album, and present Sumney as someone with masterful control over a gifted range.
Similarly, there is a sense of over-reaching when it comes to the album’s instrumentals, which are massively ambitious without fail. Taking elements from neo-soul, art-pop, avant-garde, nu-jazz, R&B and trip-hop, it’d be very easy to lose hold of a key sound and, in turn, lose the identity of the album. Thankfully, for the most part, Sumney balances these genres and melds them in a way that, at points, feels truly unique. This results in a sound that is both unabashedly abstract and smooth as silk. Of course, the spacious production style keeps from numerous instrumental crosswires from sounding to chaotic, stirring a similar serenity to Björk’s early work, notably 1997’s Homogenic. However, the lack in stylistic departure, or even a tempo change, does make the album, already at 60+mins, feel like a longer listen than it should.
What helps though, is the keen grip of the beautifully pleasant melodies that litter græ, whether it’s Virile‘s war-like grandiosity or the finger-picked guitars that give Neither/Nor its offbeat quirkiness, comparable to a mid-00s Radiohead. Sumney, in all his willing experimentation, retains an ear for composition that makes singer-songwriter music so easy to listen to — and it’s that which keeps græ grounded in its most left-field excursions.
It’s fitting, then, that such beautiful melodies is what makes Bless Me the strongest on the entire 20-track beast. Despite an arrangement that gradually becomes almost opaque in its waves-upon-waves of luscious strings and percussion, at the heart of it is just the tenderest tune, matched in Sumney’s best lyrical turn on the album. The gentle groove of the bass and guitars are beach-like in quality, washing over in pure tranquillity. Of course, the fragility in the vocals is indescribably precious, awakening a maternal instinct to just cradle and protect it. In the moments of calm where Moses drops the façade of an artist and is just bare — it’s incredibly moving and a shimmering note to leave the album on.
Bless Me also features Moses at his lyrical best, something which does let the album down at times. While that song focuses on one topic and uses romantic embellishments to elevate it, the album’s thematic whole tries to cover so much lyrical ground that the focus lies more on the topic and less on the beauty of the words; something that irks with such an aesthetic album. From black empowerment to emotional dependency, you can see where Sumney tries to make links, but they’re so tenuous in nature and tedious in execution that they don’t really have as much an impact as they could. This goes double for the numerous spoken word interludes that lack the subtly to compliment the album’s atmosphere, as eloquent as they are.
Overall, græ is very strong sophomore offering from Moses Sumney. The sheer complexity of the album’s instrumental palette is countered by Sumney’s nuanced and accomplished vocal performances. In all its experimenting, rock-solid melodics ground græ, while the disappointing inconsistency in the lyricism is its truest fault, along with lack of tempo changes befitting its 60+min runtime.
best tracks: Bless Me, Virile, Neither/Nor