Moses Sumney’s music is often two things at once. Intimate yet communal, spiritual yet lustful, his piercingly clear falsetto is interchangeable with a full-throated roar – it all speaks of the tension between the mind and the body, feeling and identity.
The American songwriter’s delicate first album, Aromanticism (2017), was full of whispered yearning for emotional connection. Its follow-up is more mercurial. As with the fused diphthong of its title, Græ’s two parts, released in February and May, communicate an “inherent multiplicity”, as the author Taiye Selasi says on the track Also Also Also And And And.
From the playful oppositions of its track titles – Jill/Jack, Neither/Nor – to Sumney’s genre-splicing of R&B, folk, jazz and ambient electronics, Sumney’s moods swing and sway. Cut Me pairs rumbling synth bass with an infectious top-line melody, and his lyrics about wanting things that cause him pain capture an occasional paradox of desire. Virile is a distortion-fuelled rallying cry against masculine stereotypes, with Sumney ironically toasting “cheers to the patriarchy”. The languorous Two Dogs is a seemingly irreverent ballad concerning the song’s opening lines: “I had two dogs / In the summer of 2004.”
These meandering references, coupled with Sumney’s musings on perception, belonging and acceptance can make Græ seem impenetrable; where Aromanticism was a forlorn testimony to vulnerability, Græ enacts the whole mess of living itself. But therein lies its value, with its nuances and apparent contradictions presenting the breadth of experience that makes up a life. (Perhaps its sprawl is also in defiance of an early critical tendency to pigeonhole him as an R&B artist.) As with previous collaborators Sufjan Stevens and Perfume Genius, Sumney wrangles with his identity without boxing it in.
Like Marvin Gaye, another great falsettoist and purveyor of intimacy, Sumney shores up the solipsism of standout ballads Me in 20 Years and Bless Me with the whispers of multitracked harmonies – but as they are constructed solely from his voice, this is an illusion of company. Sumney is alone for other facets of his creative output, too: he directs his videos, such as in the bodily abstractions of Bless Me, and he is the centre of the Græ album cover, draped nude over a glistening rock like a new element unearthed from the surrounding fauna.
It doesn’t feel egocentric: Græ enacts a messy and complicated psychology in a deeper exploration of identity. Across its 20 tracks and two sides, we witness that multiplicity of a life – from considerations of death (Neither/Nor), to being wanted (Polly), to analysing our sense of morality (Bystander) – all through Sumney’s unmistakable and unshakable voice. Certainty is a trap, he seems to say, as he chooses to live in the in-between.