græ: Part 1 by moses sumney

Album: græ: Part 1

Artist: Moses Sumney

Genre(s): Electro-Soul / Baroque Pop / Singer-songwriter

Record Labels: Jagjaguwar

Recommended Tracks: Track 9 – Colouour and Track 12 – Polly

Moses Sumney is an act best described by the singer-songwriter denomination than any genre classification, as his sound his sound is as explorative as it is unique, and as is the central theme of græ: Part 1, Sumney avoids classification and definition whenever possible. Sumney spent the first 10 years of his life in San Bernardino, California, before he moved back to Accra, Ghana with his family. Sumney approached music initially without any instrumental ability, composing only a capella songs, and when he attended UCLA he majored in creative writing with a focus on poetry. Both of these elements of his approach to music are apparent in his intricate songwriting, which results in some absolutely stunning lyricism on this project and on previous projects. Sumney’s debut album Aromanticism is ethereal, nocturnal, and gorgeous. Sumney’s phantasmic falsetto is perfectly complemented by strings, deeply resounding drums, and haunting flourishes. On Aromanticism grapples with isolation, especially within romantic relationships, as well as general feelings of falseness, discontentment, and desire, however Sumney’s songwriting uses poetic language that can be interpreted within many a listener’s narrative in many different ways. On græ: Part 1, Sumney still feels like quite an isolated voice within his sparse and striking instrumentals, however through the interludes and songwriting it’s clear that Sumney’s main focus on this album is the power and validity of ambiguity and having a multiplicity of identities. I would give this album a 4/5, as I find the songwriting just bewitching, and while I enjoy the sonic palette of Aromanticism quite a bit more, I think the exploration and diversification in sound serves well to articulate a narrative about ambiguity and refusal to be defined without compromising too much musical enjoyability. 

My first standout track is “Colouour”, which opens with an almost Negro Swan-esque saxaphone arrangement backed by some wandering pianos and a backing deep synth. Sumney’s voice causes the horns to drop out leaving just him and the piano before the track expounds into a collage of various sounds under his singing, which sounds absolutely gorgeous on this track. The song, like many of Sumney’s tracks, is much more of a musical poem than a song, however the simplicity and brevity of the lyrics only serves to bolster their impact. This song incorporates the album’s themes of color in its lyrics, if that wasn’t obvious from the title, imploring the listener or whoever the song was intended for to wear some color. This color metaphor is not out of line with the typical paradigmatic implication of color as self expression, however the song precedes an interlude about multiplicity of self, which is one of the album’s main themes. Within this thematic context, I think multiple different metaphors could be being conveyed. Either color directly reflects this typical paradigm, or perhaps the line about Sumney “trying to change” whoever the song is intended for ought to be interpreted more sympathetically. Perhaps “græ” and colorlessness represents the inability to be defined despite societies perpetual demands of self-determination. These thematic throughlines might become more apparent in græ: Part 2, if that is indeed a thing. 

My second standout track was one of the singles preceding the album, “Polly”. The song has some of the most gorgeous lyrics on the album, which are given the chance to shine due to the song also being relatively simplistic, with a repetitive backing guitar and occasional additional vocals delivered by Sumney being the only embellishments to Sumney’s sung poetry. My personal favorite lyrical moment/stanza on this song is probably:

“I don’t wanna live here

Sometimes don’t wanna live at all

I want to be cotton candy

In the mouth of many a lover

Saccharine and slick technicolor

I’ll dissolve”

This encapsulates the lyrical beauty demonstrated across this record and across Sumney’s discography, which is surely one of the main draws to his work.

Overall, this album is definitely one that requires thematic digestion, as I’m still puzzling over lyrics, themes, and songs in order to construct a more complete statement to derive from this work. Hopefully græ: Part 2 or whatever else Sumney might have planned for this project isn’t too far on the horizon, since the confusing single rollout and title hinting at serialization leave me wondering how this album is going to fit into a larger multi-part work. If you like Moses Sumney, I would recommend you check out serpentwithfeet, Sufjan Stevens (especially his cover of “Don’t Bother Calling”), or James Tillman. I would recommend this project to anyone that likes poetry, minimalistic music, or that likes to engage with albums in the way one would a novel.

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