Moses Sumney is an Artist – capital intended. He doesn’t just churn out songs; he makes carefully considered art that he wants you to seriously think about. This is evident in everything he does, whether in the concepts for his visuals, the profile pieces written about him or the preposterous press releases that precede his music releases. Here’s an excerpt from Græ’s listing on label Jagjaguwar’s website:
By breaking up græ into two multifaceted, dynamic pieces, Sumney is quite literally creating a “grey” in-between space for listeners to absorb and consider the art. Not strictly singles, not strictly albums, never altogether songs or spoken word segments on their own.
Now, while on the one hand I love the ambition and the detail that goes into the work of artists like this, on the other I cannot help but roll my eyes at some of the pretentious baggage it comes with. I mean, the title with the æ grapheme. The description of the decades-old double album concept as “two multifaceted, dynamic pieces”. Come on now. Sumney’s previous record, Aromanticism, suffered from similarly verbose promotional statements (“a concept album about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape”) but the album itself was such a triumph that all of this was forgiven.
I hoped for the same from Græ, which Sumney has chosen to release in two parts (Part 2 follows in May). This is another intriguing streaming era trend (Foals notably did it last year), but unlike other fads that have come and gone (exclusives, bloated mega albums), this one actually kind of makes sense for both artists and listeners – releasing the albums in digestible chunks and generating demand from fans. I think the format really works for Græ. Like Aromanticism – which virtually crossed genres track to track – there are a lot of ideas here, and Part 1’s 38-minute run-time really allows them to be absorbed.
Something I love about Sumney is his songcraft; he’s not afraid to take his time to let a song build, or to strip a composition back to just his (incredible) voice or ambient background tones. Græ starts in this way: a spoken intro from British-American author Taiye Selasi gives way to two fairly spare tracks, ‘Cut Me’, driven by stabs of bass synth and brass flourishes, and ‘In Bloom’, a gorgeous song about uncertain feelings which opens up into a chorus of glorious strings. It’s a strong start.
The album then enters a rollercoaster tour of genres. I previously wasn’t fond of ‘Virile’, the record’s rock-infused lead single, but in sequence it works well to break up the stripped-back early tracks and a more experimental middle section which contains two of highest points on Græ: Part 1: ‘Conveyor’, which sounds inspired by Homogenic-era Bjork with its frenzied synth backdrop and soaring vocals, and ‘Gagarin’, a downtempo jazz piece that sounds appropriately as if set in outer space, with Sumney putting his voice through auto-tune to sound as distant as the astronaut of its title. It’s stunning.
The aforementioned tendency to add artistic embellishments does bite Sumney sometimes though. Aromanticism’s brief interludes were perfectly judged – for instance, the fleeting ‘Stoicism’ tells a succinct story about a childhood incident which allows the listener to interpret how it fits with the themes of the overall record. On Græ, Selasi’s readings can be overly wordy and literal. Opener ‘Insula’ works because it features one repeated sentence that is open to interpretation, but when later cuts feature statements like “dissatisfaction seems like the natural byproduct of identification”, the sentiments, though worthy, come across as lecturing (especially on repeated listens; in one section there are three interludes in the course of 13 minutes).
Some of the album’s later songs also don’t quite match the quality of the earlier ones. The vocals of ‘Colouour’ are beautiful, but the song seems to end prematurely, whereas ‘Neither/Nor’ feels like a mismatched construction – a tense epic in search of an emphatic release that never truly comes.
But Part 1 ends with the acoustic ‘Polly’ which is one of the finest songs Sumney has released to date. The self-harmonies, the songwriting, the subtle shifts in tone – my god, it’s chill-inducing. The brilliance of a song like ‘Polly’ is further evidence that we simply don’t need the bombastic explanations of his art; Sumney should trust his supreme talent to tell us everything we need to know.
Græ: Part 1 is a fascinating, fantastic and flawed listen. Bring on Part 2.
Words by Tom Burrows