Solitude and isolation aren’t just concepts for those paralyzed by COVID-19. The musical art of seclusion is a pop subsection all its own. From 1958’s “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” to Tyler, the Creator’s sad-eyed “Boredom,” to be forsaken is tantamount to being adored, and with it, the glad-to-be unhappy aesthetic is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Moses Sumney is the master of this sort-of forlorn epic, and getting better at it all the time, judging from the trajectory between his last album, 2017’s warm “Aromanticism,” and this week’s icy “Græ,” a walking daydream of a double album whose first half was available in February.
Soigné and sad, Sumney is making isolationist hybrid minimalism on a grand scale with the electronic-laced R&B, folk, jazz, art-pop, glitch-hop and musique concrète of “Græ.” Bleakly melancholy by nature, yet not without a dark sense of humor, Moses has been doing this, quietly, since his lo-fi debut of 2014, the “Mid-City Island” EP. “Græ” just happens to say it loudest and proudest — while touching on matters of romance, race, feminism and the definition of stereotypes — with a forward-thinking political edge, real rage, and a genuine sense of peacefulness to the lyrical proceedings.
Each recording and collaboration since that debut (including stops at Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” James Blake’s “Assume Form” and Beck’s “Song Reader”) has found Sumney’s quivering, scuffed-up, FX-soaked falsetto burning at its highest flame. His voice, often heard on “Græ” in double and triple harmony, but starkest when alone (as in “Keep Me Alive”), usually ruminates on the mess love has made.
But the San Bernardino native of Ghanian descent doesn’t just eschew romance for the sake of being alone. Sumney is bored and sickened by the commodification of love or any whiff of populism. The latter element is important to note as Moses’s chilly brand of free, eccentric, ambient soul-plus can become a kitchen=sink affair. Open-ended clutter is kin of his thing: “My identity is this kind of patchwork,” he told NME recently. “It’s not something that can be — or that I want to be — defined.”
Like it or not, there is definition to what Moses does on “Græ”, or at least precedent. Although he sounds nothing like Prince, save for a few squeaks, Moses’ maximalist “Græ” couldn’t have existed without the purple one’s sprawling “Sign O’ the Times.” Seal’s self-titled 1991 album is a great reference point when it comes to “Græ’s” open, free, orchestral R&B. Antony & the Johnsons’ “I Am a Bird, Now,” Frank Ocean’s “Blonde,” Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” and Adrian Younge’s “Presents the Delfonics” also have dogs in Sumney’s mannered, spacey art-hop race.
The wintry synths of “Insula” and the bedrock theorem of “Isolation” introduce “Græ” with a bitter-cold backdrop and a sense of disconnection that linger through a majority of the outsized package. To go with that double chill, the rubber ball-bouncing rhythm of “Cut Me” and the ambient jazz slope of “In Bloom” allow Sumney opportunities to show off his handsomely scraped falsetto and his Billie Holiday-like wobble, while mouthing bittersweet, insecure bon mots such as “Filled with doubt / That’s when I feel / The most alive / Masochistic kisses / Are how I thrive.”
Every few songs, there is a statement song — a track just a little bit grander and a bit more fulsome that either show-stops “Græ” or tweaks its trajectory.
“Virile,” with its harps, flutes, timpani, grand piano, high-strung strings and thunderdome beats, is one of “Græ’s” musical moratoriums, finding the warbling Sumney taking the piss out of everyday machismo and the rarity of gallantry with lines such as “Cheers to the patriarchs / And the marble arch” and “Here’s to the boys / And the noise / Playin’ the part.”
The same stop-and-turn occurs after the gently industrial sound-scapes of “Conveyor” and “Boxes” with “Gagarin.” Here, jungle-skittering snares, tinkling pianos and crashed cymbals introduce Sumney tackling eternity with refrigerator magnet poetry (“The earth ever spins on its axis / I’m spinning in echopraxis”), yet managing to lend even the most stilted language and silly rhythms the deep burr of soul.
Sumney approaches the gaggle of noir saxophones, zig-zagging choirs and battalion of brushed snares that is “Colourour” with his lower range. It’s a musky, scratchy tone that is a shocking tonic to the rest of the album’s windy highs, but just right for the blunt and bitchy lyricism of “Why don’t you try some earth tones / Since you claim you wanna die / The color of compost / Might make you feel revived.” Moses doesn’t get catty often on “Græ,” but when he does, fur flies.
Considering that the project was already released in two parts is interesting, as what comes next feels like it crosses its own divide, with songs that are somewhat folksier and less FX-driven that the 10 that preceded them. Starting with “Neither/Nor,” the grace and grandeur of “Græ” gets bite-sized and less synth-phonic. His un-effected, wobbly throated voice scats, then scatters, across a 12-string acoustic guitar jitter, until the verse when he leaps from the verdant fields and into the rim-clicking rhythm of robot-folk-soul. “Polly,” too, is folky, open and humble, allowing Sumney to hold his notes on this oceanic song as if holding his breath while submersed in icy water.
While a song such as “Bystanders” spills over with detuned ambience and queer bird noise, the klatch of songs that finish the album stands more naked than anything earlier on “Græ,” with complex but cutting melodies that rouse to the point of the anthemic.
“Me in Twenty Years” is touching, with the vocalist before a squelching synth and a plaintive piano unspooling melodic drama and tales of pleasure and pain with every bite of the lyric. “Keeps Me Alive” is cool Cali f-hole guitar jazz with the wettest vocal production and an elegance to its simplicity that is a stark anomaly against everything else on the two-LP package. “Lucky Me” ripples with the sparsity of plucked orchestra strings and slowed-down steel drums to allow Sumney his most quavering, full-blooded vocal. Antony-like to the max, the song only grows stronger as Sumney doubles, then triples, the amount of Moses-es in the mix.
“Bless Me” winds around a melody iced by thumbed and strummed guitar lines, and a prayerful soliloquy: “You must be an angel / Your conscience is clean / Why would you soil yourself / Wit a monster like me / If the good lord sent ya / The good lord can take ya back / I hope when he comes for you / You illuminate the path.”
“Græ” is a magnificent, multi-genre mess in a dress of many colors — the greyness of its monochrome title notwithstanding — and not just possibly 2020’s literally biggest album, across its double-album sprawl, but also one of the year’s boldest and best.