Moses Sumney’s Songs of Freedom

Moses Sumney’s Songs of Freedom

His immersive album græ explores the costs of personal and artistic autonomy.


Moses Sumney has an arch relationship with loneliness. The guitarist and singer makes love songs about rifts between lovers, savoring their conflicts, relishing their discord. He pens odes to solitude that are as sullen as they are victorious, his voice quivering with sorrow and pride. His music has all the signifiers of lonerism—introversion, withdrawal, outer space—without the accompanying misanthropy. He’s a recluse for whom distance from people, from ideas, is not detachment. On his sophomore album, græ, he gives shape to this peculiar pose, voicing a self-possession that’s born of loneliness yet emboldened by it.

Split into two parts, the first (12 tracks) released in February and the other (eight tracks) in May, græ is billed as a double album, and it’s best experienced in full. Though the “sides” are digestible half-hours, Sumney’s rich blend of electronic, folk, and soul rewards immersion. Nominally a concept album about embracing multiplicity and fluidity—the gray area between black and white—the record’s true strength is its restlessness. In his portraits of betweenness (or grayness), Sumney provides a surfeit of metaphors, sounds, and ideas that titillate without feeling complete or final. He’s a slippery, elusive performer, couching his probing inquiries into identity and intimacy in songs that morph and shed and erupt. The appeal of grayness seems to be its inherent abstraction. In the openness and emptiness of the gray, Sumney finds personal and artistic autonomy.

Compared with his debut album Aromanticism, which dissected love songs into spare reflections on solitude, græ synthesizes rather than deconstructs. From the ambient jazz of “Neither/Nor” to the folk sway of “Cut Me” to the doom-tinged drone of “Me in 20 Years,” the songs here are always alive and in motion, an endless rush of styles and lineages. This looseness feels intentional. Early in his career, Sumney was courted by the music industry to become an R&B star, a pressure he felt stemmed from racism rather than recognition of his talents. He declined, electing to cling to his instincts and follow his interests despite the professional consequences. græ embellishes that choice, expanding all the flourishes and influences hinted at in his previous music. The record is not a polemic, but it’s weighted with an air of correction.

Sumney’s main weapon has long been his disarming falsetto, which he can coil into a wounded, icy wail or expand into a warm, heavenly sunbeam. His early music would use it to haunting effect, looping it into ghostly choirs or leaving it exposed over a whisper of acoustic guitar. Here his voice and his ambitions are amplified. His falsetto remains beautiful, but it’s less of a centerpiece now. On “Virile,” a song that casts masculinity as an endless (sometimes fun) performance, his voice cascades up and down the vocal spectrum as he sings, “You’ve got the wrong idea, son.” As he lingers on the first syllable of “idea”—”I, I, I”—he seems to demonstrate how open-ended masculinity can be. Accordingly, the production is both harsh and soft, melding flute trills, string swells, and frantic percussion into beautiful chaos. Sumney’s definition of virility is less about strength or potency and more about the potential and willingness to change form.

Sumney often uses grayness this way, prying open an idea and wondering aloud if it could work differently. He can be both playful and critical. “Conveyor,” which embodies the former, is a cheeky vow to embrace conformity. “I will assume form / Join the workforce / The colony,” he sings with tart sweetness. The puttering drums and shimmering synths nearly obscure his voice, conveying the success of his conformity.

For the spoken-word song “jill/jack,” Sumney and the singer-songwriter Jill Scott take a diagram of hypermasculinity and slyly rearrange it. “He had that masculine thing down / Shoulders and back straight / Never slumping / Never round / Straight,” the song begins, repeating the chant with tweaked pronouns and ad-libs. It ends with the two speaking in unison, masculine and feminine, both a critique of rigid gender politics and an exercise in fluidity.

The clearest demonstration of Sumney’s range is “Gagarin,” presumably named after the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Moaning across a gorgeous void of twinkly keys, rich bass lines, and echoing FX, Sumney’s voice is transformed into a slurred, depressive yawn. “My life does not belong to me,” he says with acute resignation, evoking Gagarin’s pioneering flight. The song has a cinematic quality to it, every sound rich and lush, every word weighted and bleak. But there’s also solace in space, and when he views the Earth from space, he finds purpose: “For that big blue bold / I’ll let it go / For the gold medal / Surrender.” Sumney’s Gagarin sounds frightened and patriotic and self-destructive all at once. This imaginative biopic in song is less a story and more a topography, the contours of isolation mapped in granular detail.

Sumney’s vision of grayness is not solely musical. Across the record, spoken-word interludes ground Sumney’s genre-hopping in a larger fight for self-determination. The record begins with writer Taiye Selasi exploring the etymology of the word “isolation,” whose root word means “island,” and constantly builds on that idea, presenting disconnection as both an emotional and political experience. On “boxes,” a coda to “Conveyor,” poet Ayesha K. Faines says, “I truly believe that people who define you control you / And the most significant thing that any person can do / But especially black women and men / Is to think about who gave them their definitions.” The aptly named “also also also and and and” adds that the ability to change definitions is just as vital as writing them. “I insist upon my right to be multiple,” Selasi says.

Selasi’s directness is an effective complement to Sumney’s abstraction, which might otherwise scan as cagey. “Bystanders,” for instance, warns of the danger of misplacing trust in supposed allies, drawing a distinction between supporters and gawkers. “Don’t waste your candor / On bystanders / They’ll watch you waste, waste / Waste, waste away,” he sings. In the context of black people historically being surveilled and imposed upon, Sumney’s advice lands as cautious rather than vague. Asserting one’s freedom is not the same thing as having it recognized, a point he takes so seriously that he does not elaborate past betrayals.

The album’s highlight is “Polly,” a warmhearted transmission to a lover who’s resistant to Sumney’s preference for polyamory. The song channels all of the album’s notions of multiplicity, from its eruption of voices to its contradictory imagery. Sumney buzzes with delight and fear as he articulates his vision for the relationship: “I want to be cotton candy / In the mouth of many a lover / Saccharine and slick technicolor.” The sequence is empowering and depleting. Cotton candy is adored and also disposable, a disjunction that creeps in as Sumney second-guesses his admission toward the end of the song. “Am I just your Friday dick?” he asks. The song’s one-sidedness heightens the sense of risk, a nuance that would be foreclosed if Sumney had written it as a defense of polyamory rather than a negotiation of one particular arrangement.

Ultimately, this seems to be the appeal of grayness as a theme; instead of anthems, Sumney offers solitary dispatches, celebrating his freedom while refusing to downplay its costs, its fragility. His island is sovereign and teeming—and exposed. Moses Sumney’s music won’t make you feel invincible, but it will make you feel alive.

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