Album Review: Moses Sumney – grae

When Moses Sumney posted a trailer for his ‘Virile’ music video on Instagram in late 2019, he captioned it: “Going into this new album cycle, I knew I would have to change a lot to achieve my artistic vision: my body, my diet, my mindset, my city, my circle.” Immediately, without having heard a single song on Sumney’s prospective album, I knew the world was in for a transformative project of epic proportions.

Enter græ. It opens on an offering that seems too good to be true for this time: ‘Insula’ is an introduction that sets the ever-climbing trajectory for Sumney’s 20-track opus. A simple set of spoken words over a swirling current of sparkling instrumentation: “‘Isolation’ comes from ‘isola’, which means ‘island’”. That phrase will make an appearance again, bookending the album in a timely loneliness. Solitude and isolation seem to waft through græ like a warm breeze, but you’d be wrong to think Sumney wrote græ for Coronavirus-induced isolation. The subject was fascinating to him long before humanity was forced into it. On græ, Moses Sumney is a vocal maestro who conducts and meticulously curates every aspect of his art. græ is his musing on identity, and the Self in its relationship (or non-relationship) to the Other.

‘Insula’ gives way to ‘Cut Me’, a track of the most luscious, relaxed R&B. It crawls until you realise the groove has set in, unassuming and subliminal. ‘Cut Me’ is more melodically palatable than most of the songs on græ, but if you listen closely, the words are visceral and almost violent: “Might not be healthy for me / But seemingly I need / What cuts me”.

If there is one thing Moses Sumney is not concerned about, it’s his palatability. Case in point: the music video for ‘Polly’, a stunning and understated ballad. It’s uncharacteristically lo-fi in comparison to the pure cinema of Sumney’s other visual offerings. He sits – presumably – in his own living room, and as the lyrics flash subtitle-style across the bottom of the screen, his eyes well and he begins to cry. And that’s it. He just cries, staring a little defiantly at the camera. It feels too intimate to watch, yet impossible to skip over or stop. One of the more incredible quirks of Sumney’s catalogue is that you cannot simply analyse one aspect of it without the others.

On ‘Keeps Me Alive’, he’s pushed his voice to its limit, with runs that climb almost impossibly high. He subverts every preconceived notion of his personhood, his masculinity. He’s androgynous and wholly unafraid to experiment.

græ almost renders lyrics obsolete. Emotion in the album feels less a product of the words, and more of its various sounds – the cacophony that swirls itself into organised chaos, his open “ahs”, the click of tongue against teeth as he strikes a consonant.

Penultimate track ‘Bless Me’ is a choral gospel effort with an explosive chorus. It bleeds into ‘before you go’: bassy, synth-tinged. His capability to let sound roll in and out (yes, like a wave), is remarkable. He seems to reign it in at the moment of release. A truly masterful thing to behold.

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