Moses Sumney was a proponent of isolation long before it became a matter of worldwide necessity. Born and raised in California to Ghanaian parents, Sumney spent his formative teenage years in Accra as an outsider. While there, he trained himself how to sing, referring to Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake tapes his father acquired from the States.
He also began exploring the art of songwriting, plucking new words as he found them. Most importantly though, he learned how to spend time alone. Despite going on to hang around in social circles in the Hollywood Hills following a reinvention when he returned to the US, he didn’t deem this a mark of success. Sumney longed for solitude.
He eventually decamped to the Blue Ridge Mountains (shunning industry interest in the process) and composed what would become 2017’s ‘Afromanticism’. This independence of thought has stood to Sumney who now, more than ever is adamant you don’t label him. Establishing Asheville, NC as his home, we return to the mountain range on Virile.
“On the long hike through”, the singer-songwriter challenges male stereotypes, all the while spreading some ashes to ashes-style existential reasoning with himself. As is common throughout ‘Græ’, the lead single is multifarious and symbiotic. Much can be read into the line, “to stake dominion over all that one surveys/Is the virile, viral way”.
‘Viral’ could be alluding to the way in which we flex online, as well as the contagion and one-upmanship associated with male dominance. ‘Survey’, more aligned with geography, meanwhile could actually refer to Pisgah and Nantahala forests which sandwich Asheville. The threat of deforestation has long been documented, not least in the Southern Appalachians.
Sumney later declares, “You want dominion to make minion of the stars/Made up of what you are”. In addition to being insanely poetic, he transposes our sentience to a place much greater than us and even Blue Ridge Mountains, outer space. He even goes as far as reminding us that we’re indebted to it.
Jagjaguwar are renowned for facilitating solo indie artists to explore their loftiest of visions. Virile is a cacophony of harps, flutes, timpani and grand piano. Noah Kardos-Fein (a-la Yvette fame) also cameos on guitar as he does on the snare-laden, Conveyor. Both the boldest and most melodic electronic offerings on the album, twenty-year-old saxophonist and Ninja Tune signee, John Keek is summoned towards the end, evoking the work of Blood Orange if the beacons were lit by Devonté Hynes himself.
This segues nicely into boxes where Sumney (via spoken word from feminist-not-feminist writer and tech-entrepreneur, Ayesha K. Faines) further lays out his stall, loosely keeping in tune as her digitised voice makes way for something altogether more forthright and pure: “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/And rewrite those definition for themselves”.
There’s an argument to be made that ‘græ’ is afrofuturistic. That is if another of the album’s speakers didn’t share Sumney’s murky view of nationality and race. Taiye Selasi (of Nigerian and Ghanaian origins, counts Accra, Berlin, New York and Rome amongst her hometowns) implores us to ask people where they’re a local, not where they’re from.
For someone who’s laid their hat in no less than three time zones, this is something that Sumney can subscribe to. Acting as a spokesperson on also also also and and and, Selasi states confidently, “I am aware of my multiplicity, and anyone wishing to meaningfully engage with me or my work must be too”. You’ve got that straight. Another thing keeping ‘græ’ from shooting off into never-never land entirely are its folk leanings and the minimalism of some of its string arrangements.
This contrasts beautifully with the celestial side of the record as highlighted on Gagarin (a reference to Soviet cosmonaut and the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin) which embodies the patiently sweet build-ups and euphoric synthwork of say a Bonobo or James Blake record. In fact, Sumney’s falsetto and the expressive range of his voice is arguably the strongest instrument on the album. It positions itself alongside its compositions as opposed to dominating them. Perhaps that was his point all along.
Blake actually lends a helping hand in the second half of the album (Lucky Me), as does superproducer, John Congleton (Bless Me) who also helped labelmate and neighbour, Angel Olsen achieve her vision on last year’s stunning ‘All Mirrors’, as well as Jagjaguwar contemporary, Sharon Van Etten on the equally as brilliant ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’.
The former, a reflection on a past relationship is simple and elegant. Sumney, “bitter then, better now” acknowledges, “just because you didn’t love me/The way I thought I should be loved/Doesn’t mean I wasn’t wanted/Or I wasn’t something to be proud of”, counting “blessings” as well as “limbs”.
Bless Me, meanwhile is the ending theme to end all movies. Progressing towards a crescendo, Sumney calls upon Greek mythology in self-damnation as he looks to cling onto a moment in time with someone.
As conclusive as that may be, it leaves you with as many questions as it does answers. And that, above all else is what ‘Græ’ can be most proud of. This record wears its insecurities for all to see yet it’s always tied together with inquisitiveness and intellect. As promised towards the end of the first half, it speaks in a language that requires deeper engagement.
When Sumney ruminates, “Am I just your Friday dick?” on Polly, however, you can’t help but feel that Sumney is plagued by the same doubts as we all are. This is the sort of cast aside retaliation that could be equally found in an exchange in someone’s DMs or during a late-night booty call. Philosophising this using the phrase, “cornucopia of just-in-cases” merely serves to hyperbolise his paranoia and feeling of worthlessness as a result of being in a relationship with someone who is polyamorous. Not very woke.
Neither/Nor, centres around kora playing from British-Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and composer, Tunde Jegede, demonstrates ‘Græ’ at its most traditional with a nod to early West African string music. Me in 20 Years, meanwhile is a very different proposition, focusing Sumney as the balladeer and with brooding electronics courtesy of Oneohtrix Point Never.
‘Græ’ is a weighty album, yes. One could criticise the way in which it was released with the first 12 tracks arriving late-February and the remaining eight only joining it mid-May. Short of attacking his creative freedom, conceptually it doesn’t make sense. The second half doesn’t represent a sequel, nor does it justify having had to sit on the first half for nearly three months.
For something that examines the binary so closely, this could be considered a missed opportunity. If you were being really harsh, it could even be said it devalues the album. Nevertheless, it remains tight while also allowing for Sumney to display several strings to his bow. Despite a whole host of collaborators, it showcases Sumney as an auteur. A magnificently experimental and expansive piece of work.