Moses Sumney has spent his life on the margins, living in the in-between spaces that defy simple categorisation. His groundbreaking debut, 2017’s ‘Aromanticism’, a genre-less album that blurred 1970s-inspired soul with alternative jazz, was well-received but saw the musician widely labelled as an R&B artist – much to his dismay.
His parents are Ghanian and Sumney grew up in California (at various points he lived in Riverside and San Bernardino) and he’s often asked to describe his heritage in singular terms, erasing part of his identity. He recently told NME: “People always look to define you to understand you, but my identity is this kind of patchwork. It’s not something that can be – or that I want to be – defined.”
And with his second record, ‘græ’, a sprawling 20-song double-album released in two parts (the first arrived back in March), Sumney emphasises this message more overtly. In one of the album’s standout spoken word segments, an assertive voice tells us: “I insist upon my right to be multiple.”
In keeping with Sumney’s manifesto, the album is often impossible to define and only loosely recalls jazz, art-pop, spoken word and avant-garde. As with Bjork, David Bowie and Prince, attempts at categorisation often feel useless because Sumney’s music exists so pointedly outside of any boundary. While the songs link thematically, few link stylistically – in fact, most are polar opposites: there’s sci-fi futurism next to sprawling orchestrals and even scatter-gun trap beats paired with swirling electronica.
Spoken-word opener ‘Insula’ sets the album’s inquisitive tone. An androgynous, futuristic voice repeatedly reflects upon the meaning of the word ‘isolation’, before it abruptly asserts: “Here we go into the grey.” It’s underscored by a sparse, unsettling bassline from jazz-funk superstar Thundercat bass and distorted synths from producer Oneohtrix Point Never. This menacing opening is a distinct comment on the dangers that come with narrowly defining yourself and others.
Sumney takes us on a journey from his childhood to now, mapping out his path from isolation to freedom. The album bursts into life with ‘Cut Me’, which features his altitude-defying falsetto and lyrics that convey his outsider status as a “true immigrant son”. His fractured identity is reflected by sporadic piano and trumpet bursts held together with shimmering harmonics. Sumney’s falsettos are layered until they reach a piercing crescendo, which coincides with him singing about using pain to block out pain: “Masochistic kisses / Are how I thrive…. Might not be healthy for me but seemingly I need / What cuts me.”
This theme continues on the gut-wrenching, skeletal ‘Neither/Nor’, an acoustic track about the isolation that comes from existing on the margins; he recalls being ignored as a child due to his difference. “Who is he?” a voice recalls before the devastating response arrives: “Nobody”. At school Sumney’s quiet, effeminate nature clashed with traditional definitions of masculinity, leading to yet more othering. Album standout ‘Virile’ sees him thrash against the status quo: “You’ve got the wrong guy / You wanna slip right in / Amp up the masculine / You’ve got the wrong idea, son.”
Each of theses songs shifts from sparseness to maximalism, from a feeling of helplessness to defiance; it’s a common pattern on the album. On ‘Virile’, gentle harps and soft flutes are overwhelmed by thunderous beats and clashing synths; ‘Neither/Nor’ swells from scant, fingerpicked guitar to swirling orchestration. There is a great deal of defiance here. On the album’s second spoken-word segment, ‘also also also and and and’, which arrives halfway through the album, he’s more assertive still: “I really do insist that others recognise my inherent multiplicity / What I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it.” On ‘Boxes’, he takes it further: “I truly believe that people who define you control you.”
The first half of ‘grae’ simmers with devastating rage, while the second evokes something close to peace for Sumney, who accepts his multiplicity by defining himself as “me” for the first time across multiple songs. And he implores others to do the same. He also makes pleas for honesty – sometimes with moments of startling humour. On gentle acoustic ballad ‘Polly’, he bluntly asks a potential lover, “am I just your Friday dick?”
The spoken-word segments allow the record to breathe and break up the density of a record which can, at times, be overwhelming. Yet this is an album that – fittingly – rewards multiple listens. With ‘græ’, Sumney calls for a world that doesn’t expect easy answers and doesn’t judge or restrict individuals. This is a brave, vulnerable and ambitious work that asks us to recognise and celebrate our own grey areas. It’s an album full of possibility and startling scope, and which, ultimately, finds peace among the pain.
Release date: May 15
Record label: Jagjaguwar