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Moses Sumney’s World of Possibilities

6 min read
When we’re young, a love song can seem like a beacon. It translates the mystery of feeling—the erratic moods and palpitations associated with growing up—into the stability of language. Pop music is built on these pithy excavations of fantasy and desire, even as this actual thing called love remains ephemeral. But the love song can…
Moses Sumney’s World of Possibilities

When we’re young, a love song can seem like a beacon. It translates the mystery of feeling—the erratic moods and palpitations associated with growing up—into the stability of language. Pop music is built on these pithy excavations of fantasy and desire, even as this actual thing called love remains ephemeral. But the love song can just as easily become a kind of provocation, an unworkable template, a list of ways we can’t fit ourselves within a supposedly universal norm.

In 2017, the singer Moses Sumney released his début album, “Aromanticism,” a meditation on his inability to engage in romantic attachment. It’s not that he is incapable of feeling. It takes listening to only a few seconds of Sumney’s singing to become aware of how much and how deeply he feels, and of his skill for cramming as much of himself as possible into every second of his music. A single line delivers a continuum of these feelings, expressed by a strident falsetto, a coy growl, a fey, broken whisper. “Aromanticism” lingers on themes of ambivalence and loneliness—not quite mopey despair so much as a quest for what to do with a surplus of energy.

“I fell in love with the in-between / Coloring in the margins,” Sumney recalls on “Neither/Nor,” a brisk, rising song on his new album, “græ.” He’s reminiscing about his youth, singing softly about being a boy, breathing out “smoke with no fire.” Since he began playing small clubs in Los Angeles, in the early part of the last decade, the charismatic, fashion-forward Sumney has fit the profile of someone destined for stardom. But there is a mismatch between the fluid, slippery music he makes and the narrow range of identities and poses allowed to black artists. He has spent much of his career exploring his own emotional language rather than writing sing-along anthems, expanding his own world rather than settling comfortably into the one he found himself in.

At times, “Aromanticism” feels sparse and withdrawn; “græ” is more expansive and, consequently, more open to vulnerability. The song “Virile” opens with a string of carefree “ahs” and a shimmering harp, before giving way to a series of cathartic arena-rock drumrolls. Sumney goes high and low in search of a different version of manhood. “You wanna slip right in / Amp up the masculine / You’ve got the wrong idea, son / Dear son,” he sings, stretching that last word out with a teasing, almost nagging falsetto. The song is quickly followed by “Conveyor,” as in belt, as in assembly line. It’s as if Sumney were trying to lull a chorus of malfunctioning machines into submission. His voice manages to cut through the chaos and the clatter, bringing with it a soothing synth refrain, offering a model of resilience sometimes more captivating than the words themselves.

Philosophers, scientists, and pop fans alike have wondered what in a song triggers emotion. Is it the lyrics? Is a happy song merely any song that makes us happy? Or is there something about its structure that makes us feel a certain way? Nowadays, our biggest pop stars are often our moodiest. What makes Sumney so enigmatic is the way his work calls to mind an observation by the psychologist Carroll Pratt: that “music sounds the way emotions feel.” A song conveys the storm and the stress of how it feels to feel, the manic turns of joy and ecstasy, the sudden onset of all emotions at once. Lyrics may anchor us in a scene or a situation of being up or down. But Sumney’s music is more about what it means to feel, even if you have no idea how to name the force that is overtaking you.

Sumney, who is in his late twenties, was born in San Bernardino, about sixty miles east of Los Angeles. Both of his parents were Christian pastors from Ghana. Earlier this year, he published an essay in “Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases,” in which he discussed his parents’ status, during his childhood, as undocumented immigrants—something he wasn’t fully aware of at the time. When Sumney was ten, the family briefly returned to Ghana. He ended up back in Southern California for high school, and began singing in the school choir. He attended U.C.L.A., where he pursued creative writing.

He befriended the Los Angeles R. & B. trio King, who invited him to open some shows. Sumney’s performances mainly consisted of him singing over ethereal guitar loops. Audiences quickly recognized that there was something special about his voice; he just needed to figure out how to use it. Dave Sitek, best known for his work with the post-punk group TV on the Radio, lent him a four-track recorder. Sumney’s first few singles were folky and stripped down. He collaborated with artists like Beck and Solange, and opened for Sufjan Stevens and James Blake, while deciding what to do for himself.

Sumney’s early recordings had a withdrawn, almost shy quality, as he tried to make his singing blend in with pretty strums and delicate, lo-fi sound collages. But, as his songs grew more sophisticated, he began exploring the full range of his voice. Sometimes this meant holding back, calling to mind the quiet, frisky moments of Amy Winehouse. Other times, his voice was bold and restless, almost overpowering the track. Sumney can be reminiscent of Björk: you hear a song and imagine that a less interesting singer might have turned it into an easy hit, rather than a performance that is uniquely the artist’s own.

“græ” ’s resistance to closure is almost literal: although its first half was released online in February, the rest of it, as well as the physical version, isn’t coming out until May. Among the forty-odd contributors to “græ,” the most prominent is the experimental electronic musician Daniel Lopatin. Lopatin, who also records as Oneohtrix Point Never, is a master at evoking the feeling of the present: a seamless seesaw between anxious dread and ecstatic bliss. He and Sumney are like sparring partners, testing each other’s capacity to match quavering falsetto with machine growls, playful rudeness with New Age synths. Sumney seems less forlorn this time, as he invites others to help navigate these swirls of sound.

The seriousness and the self-possession that define Sumney’s work make it easy to miss out on moments of humor. His singing sounds epic and timeless, and then you listen closely and hear a reference to the fantasy series “Animorphs,” or a question about whether he’s merely someone’s “Friday dick.” On “Two Dogs,” a willowy track that will be released in May, he describes a dog that’s “whiter than a health-food store.” That these songs are often about loneliness lends the quiet invitation to cross lines a kind of awkward mischievousness. “Sometimes I want to kiss my friends,” he sings on the lush, tiptoeing “In Bloom.” “You don’t want that, do ya? / You just want someone to listen to ya / Who ain’t tryna screw ya.”

In December, Sumney released a video for “Polly,” a gorgeous, lilting guitar ballad about a relationship at an impasse. Sumney looks directly at the camera for the song’s duration. As the lyrics appear onscreen, he cries and cries. It’s both hard to watch and impossible not to. It’s also impossible to understand what he is feeling in that moment—which is why all I could do was laugh. His singing is absorbing and sensual, drawing you past the words, which will never suffice anyway, toward something deeper.

“græ” begins with a meditation on the relationship between the words “isolation” and “island.” Throughout, there are spoken segments in praise of multiplicity and knowing oneself, and riffs railing against society’s penchant for classification. Perhaps this is the fate of knowing yourself too well—you may always be misunderstood. On “Me in 20 Years,” Sumney addresses a fortysomething version of himself, wondering what the future holds and whether the “imprint in my bed” remains. On “Gagarin,” he sounds like a muffled lounge singer, wishing to “dedicate my life / My life to something bigger / Something bigger than me.” For now, Sumney’s songs feel like a billowy shelter, “a space inside which you can exist.” Sometimes he sounds like a man, other times like a woman, and then you realize that it’s not so much the distinction that matters as how one makes a home of one’s choosing in that space. Resisting binaries or expectations isn’t just about negation. Gray isn’t just a halfway point between black and white. It is its own shade, its own color, its own world of possibilities. ♦

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