'grae' - Moses Sumney [ALBUM REVIEW]
A product of its time, Moses Sumney shows us he can make art pop out of pretty much anything.
RELEASE DATE: 21 FEB 2020 [Part I] & 15 MAY 2020 [Part II]
GENRE: ALTERNATIVE R&B / AMBIENT POP / ART POP/ CHAMBER POP / INDIE R&B / NEO-SOUL / PROGRESSIVE POP / PSYCHEDELIC SOUL
LABEL: JAGJAGUWAR Written by Joseph Lu
California-based R&B artists Moses Sumney returns with his sophomore album Græ (pronounced gray, or grey if you’re British). It’s really two albums spread over four months, with a total runtime clocking in at about an hour. Nobody can deny the ambition of the project. But like any big project, there is the danger of overproduction.
Having some mangled vocals over a bunch of little ambient bits isn’t really a new concept for an opening track – whether it’s the start of The 1975’s NOACF or Muse’s We are the Universe. But I do appreciate that Sumney is clear on his artistic statement, even if that statement is more a theme than a clear idea.
If Cut Me is your introduction to Sumney’s voice, you might pick up he sounds like a mix between serpentwithfeet, Baths, and Dirty Projector. He pretty much sticks to this style throughout the whole album – which is good or bad depending on your taste for same-ish tracks. The bassline and lyrics for this track might catch the ear of anyone familiar with 60s’ American soul, while the keys and brass keep the track feeling playful and light. There’s a bit of old and new in this track and if find yourself strolling through your apartment with a tall glass of kombucha in your hand, make sure to put this on.
With tracks titled In Bloom and Polly, I was half-expecting a Kurt Cobain reference somewhere, but really this track takes more cues from Radiohead than it does Nirvana - the instruments sit in the same sonic space as Nude with a cinematic texture that ends with a drone of strings slowly fading out. It’s lush, it’s dreamy, but the songwriting doesn’t really go anywhere; I do find it amusing Mac Demarco mixed this one though.
Virile is an obvious choice for lead single – being one of the more exciting cuts in the album. Most of the song sits on a single note, which makes the cascading breakdown in the second half just a bit more energetic. A touch of glitch here and there also gives the track the right amount of chaos to keeps things exciting. And with lyrics that offer some interesting meditations on masculinity, Sumney prompts us to ask how much is too much? For many, this is probably where the album picks up.
Conveyer picks up where Virile left off. Like its predecessor, the song pivots around a single note, making the centrepiece of this song its sound design. Mr Lopatin of Oneohtrix fame may have his fingerprints all over this one, but that’s not to say Sumney doesn’t bring anything to the table. The stabby electronic djent is tamed by his soft buttery falsettos, bringing a nice Beauty-and-the-Beast contrast throughout.
boxes is really just a myriad of guests including Ezra Miller (of all people) reading off your sociology professor’s favourite textbook. As to the actual content, it’s pretty much a DLC to Conveyer - not exactly an interesting addition but for some, it’s an indispensable clue to what the album is about.
The premise for Gagarin is simple – it’s jazz but in place of what would be a saxophone, it’s the ramblings of a tired soul put through a broken guitar amp, before the descent of some very spacey synthesizers wind down the first half of the track. The closing of the track transitions from what I imagine is a mewling alien baby eventually puffing up the same way every episode of Money Heist end – just before a climax. Gagarin will likely determine if you’re a song person or an album person. It’s an essential listening experience if you’re one of those weirdos that listen to albums from start-to-finish, but as a song for the shower Gagarin is not.
jill/jack is spoken word with a soundtrack. Instrumentally, it follows the same formula as insula, this time with more Flying Lotus injected into it. The lyrics are neither here nor there for me. If you like it, it’s probably because the narrative playfully switches its pronouns, inciting a blend of the feminine and masculine through its form. If you hate it, it’s probably because the song talks about gender by saying it’s about gender. You likely also hate it when a movie character announces the title of the film.
A straightforward ballad wearing the skin of a downtempo Hiatus Kaiyote song, Colouour seduces with its extravagant blend of jazz and electronics instruments. The lyrics makes for decent poetry but as a ‘song’ song, it’s the kind of thing you’d play during the slower bits of La La Land-esque movie.
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If boxes represent the cerebral part of gender and jill/jack the emotional – this track is kind of the middle ground between the two. Though the message in the lyrics I think will polarize right about anyone (but maybe that’s the point). It’s a rallying cry for anyone who agrees with its politics, but to the other side, it’s an attempt to shut down the conversation. If you’re not sold on the message of the album at this point, this track won’t convince you otherwise.
Nowhere is it more obvious that Sumney writes his lyrics first than in Neither/Nor, the vocal melodies never seem to have an idea of where it wants to go (There is a chorus but is there really?). And it doesn’t help that its fragmented structure skirts the line into prog-rock territory. In the context of the album however, it’s a different story. The instrumentation here is notably lighter with the acoustic guitars pushing down the bass and whatever semblance of an electronic texture is stripped away. If we judge the first twelve tracks to be an album as a whole, here we are listening to the beginning of the end.
As cliché as it is to end an album with an acoustic track, Polly does itself so well, I don’t think anyone will mind. Lyrics are sweet enough and fits the lightness of the track. As for the instrumentation, it’s a fingerstyle song Sungha Jung could play in his sleep. If it wasn’t for Sumney’s vocals, I would’ve figured I was listening to something off A Moon Shaped Pool.
Be warned. Two Dogs is a slow burn but as a prologue, it lands much more gracefully than the first act. Most of the track is carried by a couple of strings and Sumney’s trademark falsetto, which you’ve probably gotten used to at this point. The grand orchestra kick in just under 3-minute mark - that’s an entire pop song! But it’s the lyrics that brings everything together, being an obvious allegory for a childhood awakening fronted by a story of losing two dogs. Who can’t help but feel a little weepy?
It’s strange that Bystanders feels like yet another introduction to the album. The beats of this track mirror the track before. It opens with Sumney’s vocals with some long drawn out textures in the background (in this case a synthesized bass) before a wall of sound hits you at some point. However, the transition between each section is more gradual – and the arpeggios bring some much-needed energy to the track but is put out before anything spectacular comes about. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The delayed gratification builds excitement for the next track, though sadly it means Bystanders will get the ‘deep cut’ label.
Me in 20 Years
Likely this track is the best showcase of Sumney’s songwriting abilities precisely because it adopts the tried-and-tested pop song format – though listeners expecting more experimentation will likely be disappointed. It’s this constraint of form I believe that kept Me in 20 Years from any unneeded ornaments. There’s no giant chorus. No weird woosh sounds to keep you from clicking the skip button. It’s the simplicity and laser-focus of this track that lends itself to the maturity of Perfume Genius.
Keeps Me Alive
Keeps Me Alive is a clear call-back to Sumney’s debut, with a lone guitar painting much of its harmony. As part of the Sumney odyssey, a track like this should be a godsend – something akin to having the last Hunger Games book references the first. And there’s definitely something to be enjoyed here: the stripped-down instrumentation, the loose strumming and the undulating leaps of Sumney’s voice all help create a mise-en-scene of sentimentality and romance. Yet the song as a whole doesn’t really add anything new to the character other than the fact he can do a couple of really nice vocal rolls now.
You can get into Lucky Me if you’re armed with the understanding that its dynamics is gossamer-like in subtlety. Except for a couple of background vocals and some long drawn-out strings, there’s really nothing much from breaking it from its mould. But overall, it’s a sweet minimalistic ballad dominated by some solemn pizzicatos, and every little touch is purposeful. Lucky Me is the musical equivalent of sipping a nice warm cup of unsweetened camomile tea.
and so I come to isolation
We hear the TED Talk opening sequence play before hearing the source material for the very first track insula. The goal here is obvious, the track is trying to combine the idea of isolation and island. But even in the context of the album, it doesn’t serve much purpose other than bringing to mind some keywords.
Bless Me is an indie rock song very much in the vein of In Rainbows, with a chorus hooky enough to justify its 5-minute runtime. The pacing is just about right. Just before it gets too stale, Sumney unfolds itself with sky-high falsettos and a flurry of choirs and strings. The song is quite possibly the most majestic thing on this album.
before you go
before you go is the culmination of everything we’ve heard so far. There’s the glitched-out poetic lyrics we’ve been hearing since the start of the album. There’s the chord progression trailing off Bless Me but now, coated with the echoes of the delay pedal from what I’m guessing is a Fender Tele channelling the spirit of Jonny Greenwood. Out of all the little vignettes throughout the album, this one is probably my favourite, firstly because it tries to reuse and recontextualize its material and also because it doesn’t obsess on giving itself a grand exit, choosing rather a more bittersweet (though some might say limp) approach, telling me perhaps there is more to come.
With over twenty songs there’s quite a lot to say about Græ. The obvious merits are its production value and its attempts at a narrative running throughout – specifically this exploration of isolation and gender. In some ways, this album is Beyonce’s ***Flawless expanded into the length of an album and if you like catchy tunes interspersed with introspective dialogue, you’re probably in for a fun evening.
The performance varies by each track. And I think by the time you reach the end, you become so acquainted with Sumney’s falsetto it’s easy to pick out when the singing struggles – at times sounding like a strained grandma. But really, the secret sauce of the album are blatantly beautiful lyrics. Although some might think it inches a little too close to having Bob Dylan syndrome – that is, poetry disguised as song. For the people who like The Microphones and The Mountain Goats, this isn’t a problem at all.
For better or worse, there is also a clear line that divides the album. The first half is more adventurous experimenting with textures, structures housing some very clearly politically driven lyrics. In the second half, Sumney uses on a more defined sonic palette. Strangely enough, it seems the politics are completely dropped in favour of a more conventional dialogue on love.
Some will say this difference adds a new dimension. Others will say it’s a sign Sumney jumped the gun. Regardless, the stark difference between the two tells us that Sumney is likely still figuring out his style. For me, I think Sumney got a little too excited carving out the sound of his second release, but eventually settled into something he likes.
In the end, Græ is a pop album. And like any pop album, the real contribution comes from the ensemble of people making the singer look good. I think Sumney has picked an interesting array of people to produce his album, and should be commended on finding a new sound for his thought-provoking lyrics. It’s a damn good sophomore album but that’s about it.
Cut Me, Polly, Me in 20 Years, Virile, Bless Me
LEAST FAV TRACK:
Keeps Me Alive