Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Moses Sumney’s ambitious Grae destroys binaries from within

Illustration for article titled Moses Sumney’s ambitious Grae destroys binaries from within
Photo: Alexander Black

Moses Sumney is nothing if not ambitious. After two modest EPs of bare-bones home recordings, he delivered a debut album comprised of falsetto-laced, often drumless freak-folk proclamations against pop music’s favorite subject: romantic love. That album, 2017’s Aromanticism, proved subversive in other ways Sumney likely didn’t intend; although its songs were unmistakably rooted in folk music, Aromanticism exposed how quick people can be to label any black man with tremendous control over his voice (and especially his falsetto) an R&B artist.


Sumney rightfully rejected this unmerited descriptor. “When we put black artists in these boxes, we strip their ability to morph,” he told Pitchfork at the time. Grae, his Aromanticism follow-up, reads as an hour-long manifesto on this sentiment: To live inside man-made binaries and social constructs isn’t just detrimental—it’s stultifying. The album frames its titular color as the space between a dizzying variety of false and often harmfully polarized opposites.

To call Grae’s thesis—the vast majority of binaries are dangerous—provocative would be an understatement, and the LP’s theme isn’t the only grandiose measure here. For starters, the album was released in two parts, with 12 songs in February, and eight songs now. The split delivery might help listeners absorb Grae’s massive scope: Describing its music as ambitious is akin to labeling a stab wound a scrape. If Sumney’s fiery, spiritual 2018 EP Black in Deep Red, 2014 upended fans’ expectations, then Grae is a revelatory shock. Sumney’s music resonates most strongly when—like its lyrics—it destroys pre-established boundaries.

Grae: Part 1 is about as thrilling as albums come; it could easily compete for album-of-the-year honors even without the eight new songs tacked on. Part 1 sees Sumney step outside previous comfort zones and dabble in militaristic, soaring rock (“Conveyor”); galloping, wispy jazz (“Neither/Nor”); and arena-ready grunge (“Virile”)—all while deconstructing the lines between friends and lovers (“In Bloom”), the categorized and the unlabeled (“Boxes,” seemingly a direct continuation of that Pitchfork quote), and masculinity and femininity (“Jill/Jack”). Grae: Part 2 is no less formidable, though it’s not as stylistically or thematically varied. It often recalls the static thrum of Aromanticism’s most crushing ballads, and it addresses greyness less on a societal level than as the space between one’s self and other versions of that self.

Atop the gutting, spine-tingling feedback of the Part 2 ballad “Bystanders,” Sumney steps into the gap between other’s opinions and one’s own self-image. “Don’t waste your candor on bystanders,” he advises: “They’ll watch you waste away.” His striking falsetto bleeds the final two words into each other so strongly that the danger of prioritizing others’ needs over one’s own becomes all-consuming. On both “Me in 20 Years” and “Keeps Me Alive,” he delves into the greyness distancing his current standing from his future self; where the former blossoms from an aquatic chant into a haunting array of digitized percussion, the latter comprises just Sumney’s midtempo, crystal-clear electric guitar and gossamer falsetto. On “Two Dogs,” he glimpses into the future while reflecting on vivid childhood memories, balancing these eras with a twisted take on what unites us, rather than boxes us in: “I learned in death / We all are unified in countenance.” The song’s maelstrom of woodwinds, strings, and bass is both as gorgeous as his memories of his verdant backyard and as melancholy as the descriptions of his dogs slowly dying.

All these suspended-in-air ballads showcase immense restraint on Sumney’s part. The intensity and diversity of Part 1 hinted at even more bombastic and unexpected songs to come on Part 2, which instead mostly continues the sound he already mastered on Aromanticism. It’s not that Part 2’s songs aren’t gorgeous and poignant; it’s just that, given Sumney’s unwavering focus on shattering longtime boundaries, Part 2’s songs occupy shockingly familiar musical territory. So when penultimate Grae track “Bless Me” swells from a striking but traditional ballad into a tempest of gospel-like crooning and seething power chords, it comes as a welcome reminder of Sumney’s binary-destroying prowess, the main quality that makes the album a dizzying, unforgettable listen. It’s a lyric on closer “Before You Go,” though, that best summarizes the album’s sweeping, ever-relevant thesis: “All creation stories begin with separation.” For Sumney, to deconstruct is to rebuild.

Max Freedman is a Philly-based writer with bylines in MTV News, FLOOD, Paste, Bandcamp Daily, and, of course, The A.V. Club. Ask him about Angel Olsen, chili, and Chidi Anagonye.