Album Review: Moses Sumney – græ

[Jagjaguwar; 2020]

Moses Sumney thrives in the in-between. The 28-year-old’s music has always defied concrete definition, and Sumney seems totally fine sinking further into the indefinable. His debut full-length album, Aromanticism, was a gorgeous exhibition of his mystical voice and blend of jazzy, soulful music, but still felt like just a taste of what Sumney had to offer. Turns out, that was exactly the case. Sumney’s sophomore album grӕ is an ambitious double-album opus that cements him as a shining beacon of modern musicianship. Grӕ is an utterly impressive achievement, defying genre conventions while remaining a singular and laser-focused body of work. 

Across its 20 tracks, grӕ covers a lot of ground both sonically and lyrically, but its title serves as a fitting summation of the overarching themes. As the middle ground between black and white, grey is a color without color. It is at once both and neither. Through stories of heartbreak, confused friendships, and conceptual deep dives, Sumney explores the binaries humanity incessantly imposes. He acknowledges these binaries, deconstructs them, and often rejects them. Hell, even the word “grey” has two accepted spellings, but Sumney instead chooses to replace the last two letters with the Latin ӕ. 

“Neither/Nor” is perhaps the clearest example of Sumney confronting society’s need to enforce binaries: “You cannot be neither/nor / You’re fated to pick a door,” he exclaims as an acoustic guitar plucks away and multi-part vocal harmonies hum. The dichotomy between binaries regarding gender, race, class, and so on have played a huge role in perpetuating the status quo and upholding the power of majorities. Here, Sumney places himself at the center of it all, and by doing so, exposes the fundamental flaws in the very system he is forced to exist in. 

Grӕ isn’t all structuralist and post-structuralist criticisms, though, and oftentimes, Sumney’s simplest lyrical gestures hit hardest. “Colouour”, for instance, has Sumney encouraging another to express themselves more: “Go on, show yourself / There’s nothing to be scared of.” In a world that recommends coloring within the lines, true self-expression is a courageous act for those who defy the standard. Sometimes, the simple act of being told it’s okay to be yourself is a beautiful gift. 

Grӕ is a gargantuan undertaking, and on first listen, can be somewhat head-spinning. Sumney incorporates so many ideas and musical styles on this record it’s baffling that it still sounds cohesive. Just when you think you’ve found a pattern, he tries something new and flips your expectations upside down. It’s a record full of wonderful surprises and rewards a patient listener.  

The ornate string arrangements on “In Bloom” are reminiscent of something you’d find on a Dirty Projectors album, while “Virile” is just that, channeling frantic energy into a foot-stomping powerhouse that is just as catchy as it is hard to pin down. Later, “Bless Me” veers into indie rock territory with its chugging bassline and punchy drums, eventually erupting into a grand gospel of distorted electric guitars and heavenly vocals. 

Nestled between the cerebral musings are some of Sumney’s most unadorned and outright arresting tracks. “Polly”, which closes the first half of grӕ, is one of the most immediate and captivating pieces of music he has ever recorded. Throughout the song, Sumney uses distinct couplets to explore the ups and downs of polyamory and unrequited affection. “I want to be cotton candy / In the mouth of many a lover / Saccharine and slick technicolor / I’ll dissolve.” Sumney delivers these, and almost every other line he sings, as though they are the only words that exist. Elsewhere, “Keeps Me Alive” is the most straightforward track on the album musically, and Sumney’s malleable voice and the lush, jazzy guitar chords harken back to some of his earliest recordings from the Mid-City Island EP.

Sumney’s voice has always been one of his greatest assets, and it is the crown jewel of grӕ. He uses his voice to such great effect in so many different ways that even without the stellar production and instrumentation behind him, it would still be captivating. Sumney knows when to lean in close and when to pull back, adding greater depth and dynamics than ever before. A perfect example of this can be found on “Conveyor”, where there’s a sudden shift about a minute into the song when the tightly-wound percussion and glitchy synth jabs melt away into an ethereal chorus. Reverb engulfs his voice for those few seconds, creating a sensation akin to an out-of-body-experience.

Oddly enough, grӕ’s one flaw is that it makes some of its points a little too well. There are a handful of interludes placed throughout the album, and though they provide some insightful summaries of the most prescient themes, they can often feel superfluous. Sumney does such an excellent job conveying his points on the more fleshed-out songs that a few of the interludes are unnecessary. In the grand scope of things, however, it barely detracts from the album, and the interludes still provide unique musical detours and moments of introspection.

Grӕ is so rich in content and so vast in musicality it would be impossible to unpack everything in a single review. It is complex yet universal – comforting yet unsettling. It lives in an incorporeal realm of its own, and somehow, Sumney has gained complete and utter command over it.