Moses Sumney and the digital crush

Exploring lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape.

Art: Ben Lopes

Moses Sumney’s music is dizzyingly sensory. His new digital-only release græ: Part 1, the first half of his double sophomore album set to drop in full in May, is perhaps his most hypnotic yet. In its breadth of sonic layers – spanning warm jazzy strings to disembodied synth pads, threaded together by the artist’s falsetto croon – the record expands and contracts like an elastic band that never quite allows the listener to catch their breath. Sumney’s body of work carries a cohesion despite its experimental nature; orbiting around a thematic core of love and isolation.

This meditation on lovelessness and aloneness was first given its fullest expression on Sumney’s 2017 debut album Aromanticism. In an essay posted to his Tumblr page, Sumney described Aromanticism as “a concept album about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape.” Though the sonic landscape in question is certainly dreamlike, woven together through layer upon layer of synthesised vocals, it is rarely happy. At its centre is a deeply personal exploration of Sumney’s experiences of aromanticism, and the doubt and suffering of failing to adhere to normative modes of love. The central track of the record ‘Doomed’ sees Moses question if a life lived without romantic love holds any meaning: “If lovelessness is godlessness / Will you cast me to the wayside? / Well, I feel the peeling of half-painted ceilings / Reveal the covering of a blank sky.”

græ: Part 1 is animated by the same troubling of Western capitalist society’s deep investment in romance as a completion of the self. However, where Aromanticism feels both intimate and emotionally distant, græ is larger, warmer, and more meditative. In græ, Sumney links a lack of romantic love to a politics of multiplicity; using the experimental nature of the record to explore the grey spaces that can exist within and between people. His album, in rejecting romantic love as the pinnacle of human interaction, opens a deep consideration of how practices of love can resist any one formation. I find Sumney’s record to collide with 2020s fast-moving digital culture in ways that are generative, bordering on hopeful.

græ speaks to the internet era both in form and lyrics, spanning genre and atmosphere in ways that call to mind the networked chaos of digital space. The fact that græ: Part 1 has only been released on digital platforms only reinforces the distinctly internet-age feel of the record; inhabiting a disembodied, liminal pocket of space and time. This sense of digital spatiality also speaks to the transitory nature of Sumney’s own life – having lived between Ghana and the US as a child and young adult, and now geographically in flux as a musician – creating a record that defies placement in the way that diasporic flows of bodies do.

Nowhere is this clearer than on græ, whose first half opens with ‘insula,’ a brooding, synth- and string-heavy minute-long track punctuated by just four lines: “Isolation comes from ‘insula’ which means island,” three times, followed by “Here we go into the grey.” Borders of physical space become entangled with borders of emotional and bodily space. Sumney’s counter to this isolation, and the isolation of Aromanticism, expands slowly over the album as one of multiplicity. This thesis reaches its most resolute in the spoken word, ‘also also also and and and.’ The track swells with building layers of unearthly sonic groans and pops, cut through by vocals from British-American-Ghanian-Nigerian author Taiye Selasi: “I insist upon my right to be multiple.”

The following track ‘Neither/Nor’ takes this political statement and places it back alongside Sumney’s confessional songwriting. Over a winding folky-soul melody that dips in and out of quiet moments and a bouncy pop pulse, Sumney is at his most honest: “I fell in love with the in-between” and yet: “only the lonely are lukewarm”.

græ: Part 1 ends with ‘Polly’, a minimal lament on feeling inadequate in love. Layered vocals of Sumney’s characteristic falsetto showcase the best songwriting on the record: “I want to be cotton candy / In the mouth of many a lover / Saccharine and slick technicolor / I’ll dissolve / I know that won’t solve this”. Ending abruptly as it does, the album eludes the feeling of completion. This space of disembodied incompleteness allows the album to carry Moses’ conceptual exploration of multiplicity into its sonic fabric. ‘In Bloom’ and ‘jill/jack’ are lighter, restrained tracks while ‘Virile’ and ‘Conveyor’ embody a frenetic energy that carries into the socio-political commentary of ‘boxes’. Even within tracks, græ refuses to ever sink into a single mode of listening.

Even as the experimental nature of Moses’ records speaks to digital space, it requires an attentiveness and slowness that feels incongruous with the fast-paced nature of the digital age. Listening to his music is, for me, a process of taking in the layered audio and only later allowing the weight of his lyrics to hit me. This commitment to attention is one helmed by Sumney himself: in the Aromanticism essay, he described the record as “not protest music, but process music”. græ holds this same intentionality, and Sumney’s insistence on multiplicity becomes a call to attend more deeply to complex conversations and ideas.

In an essay for Real Life Mag, Alexandra Molotkov depicts the internet as a purveyor of romantic obsession; our devices allowing for the idealisation of another to be continually reframed and bolstered, via a perpetual stream of blue-lit simulation. Love online, characterised by swipe-right Tinder culture and superficial interactions, doesn’t often account for non-normative interactions – spaces of platonic intimacy, for example. Yet, Molotkov muses on the grey space to be found in the online: “The internet, while it can cocoon you in a fixation, can also help formalize distance. It legitimizes deep attention to others at a considerate remove.”

Sumney’s music embraces this tension and in doing so, argues for a more considered approach to love and the lack of it in digital space. This opens space for a reframing of what kinds of love we prioritise in our internet interactions, and what kinds of communities can be forged out of the online.

Art historian Temi Odemosu’s notion of a ‘politics of care’ elevates this practice of multiplicity in love to one with political potential. As part of her work with the Swedish Living Archives Research Project, Odemosu details the way that visual art – by developing a practice of ‘listening’ to archival content – can be a decolonising force. When such a politics of care is considered alongside Sumney’s work, his central concern of multiplicity in love points to slowness and an embrace of grey space online as politically salient.

Under a politics of care, the tensions that arise within and around Sumney’s music are tools that, used in our online interactions, can be generative. Sumney’s rejection of societal labels and turn towards ‘the grey’ collides with the specificity of living in the world as a black man under systemic white supremacy. Such tensions open a space in which Sumney’s attentive approach to grey space in love offers cohesion and solutions for the other tensions to be found in the disconnected, yet hyper-connected digital age.

Experimental audio, often incorporating multiple mediums of visual and text-based content, allows for reframing of the norm by moving beyond the parameters of what music can sound like. Artists like Kelsey Lu and serpentwithfeet use similarly genreless, vocal-heavy unearthly sound to explore themes of love and isolation. These kinds of sonic formations can help us to navigate the chaos of 2020s internet culture, pointing us towards non-normative, future-facing conceptualisations of what it means to love. Moses Sumney’s constructed sonic world is my new digital crush.

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