In recent years, genre seems to have become more and more obsolete. Artists who were previously labelled as this or that have reinvented themselves, breaking out of the boxes forced upon them by label bosses and – more often than not – coming up trumps in the process. Tame Impala now reaches for his drum machine when he once would be yearning for his guitar; Kendrick Lamar tries on myriad influences and styles with each passing record, flitting from traditional West Coast hip-hop masterpiece one moment, to a jazz-inflected magnum opus or electronic/industrial benchmark-setter the next.
Many artists have set out their stall and then sought reinvention like this, in often bold and dramatic manners. But to go one better is to be Moses Sumney and do away with generic expectations from the get-go. Even before his first full-length record was released, his voice was popping up on the art-rock musings of Hundred Waters or the electronic/future-bass stylings of Flume, and then last year, on the R&B-infused creations of James Blake, Sumney found a new hat to try on...and boy, did it suit him.
As an artist who doesn’t deal in traditional soundscapes or ideas, his 2017 debut ‘Aromanticism’ felt like a watershed moment for both him and the industry. Now, his latest album ‘græ’ (or at least, part one of it, the second half will be released in May) is further testament to the extraordinary scope of this singularly-gifted artist.
Dealing lyrically in themes of social commentary and love – both the obsessive and unrequited kind – the first part of ‘græ: Part 1’ is a bold, intelligent collection of songs with depth. Repeated listens bring forth new textures, new melodic lines, new moods and new lyrics, each more interesting and intriguing than the last. On “Cut Me”, the album’s latest single, Sumney surmises over the hopelessness of an outsider’s struggle to fit in: “Guess I’m a true immigrant’s son/No vacancies, no vacation” - a line that I didn’t take note of until my third or fourth listen of the record. Similarly, on 'Polly', he directs his considerable ire on the increasingly-divided nature of modern Western society: “Not yet sick of sycophants/telling you the true lies”.
The overarching theme of the project’s opening half, however, remains of identity, conformity and Sumney’s repeated rejection of binary, stale, and suppressive ideas. Every track dealing in these ideas is given a non-capitalised title, perhaps a sign that he rejects them. His defiance reaches a head on ‘also also also and and and’ and the central line: “I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity.” Nevermore forcefully has a line been delivered by any artist, and nevermore well-placed is Sumney as an artist, to take these ideas over to a larger, mainstream audience.
As the songwriting on ‘græ: Part 1’ continues to subvert expectations, so too do the song structures and production techniques. Standout track and lead single ‘Virile’, has a dense, almost hard-rock edge to it. It’s fleshier and more muscular than any of Sumney’s previous compositions and shows that, for all the self-assuredness that exists here, there’s always room for more growth where Sumney’s concerned.
To hear him back with new music that’s as dignified and memorable as it is utterly transcendent is a wonderful thing. It’s still only one part of a record, but for now at least, we’re off to a pretty impressive, impactful and brilliantly-executed start. And that really is all we could have asked for.
Words: Michael Watkins
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