Moses Sumney
Grae


4.5
superb

Review

by K. Prince CONTRIBUTOR (7 Reviews)
May 18th, 2020 | 21 replies


Release Date: 05/15/2020 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Ambitious, untethered, and uncompromising.

Before serialized television was the norm, long-form stories on the silver screen were most commonly “two-parters”—with each part typically enjoyed with one week in between viewings. Episode one heaves across the finish line after methodically planting plot-seeds for a later payoff, and in doing so, its exposition doesn’t have much of its own story to tell. Such is the case with grae, Moses Sumney’s sophomore release—a double album that delivered its first half earlier this year, and only reaches its audience in full this week. While Sumney’s debut Aromanticism was ambitious in its genre-fluid exploration of uncharted emotional territory, part one of grae was even more heady and enterprising: a slow cooker of beautiful, disparate moods and ambiguous inter-track skits on multiplicity, masculinity, and racial identity. If there is any merit to hearing grae only one part of a time, it’s that the double-LP in its entirety gives the listener plenty of “aha!” moments throughout its runtime—providing answers, both conceptual and musical, to questions posed in its original, exposition-heavy partial form. Of all the answers presented in grae's totality, the most important one responds to the question, “is grae a good album?” In short: yes. Liberated from the drama of its staggered release schedule, grae emerges as a complete and rewarding deep dive that blossoms into wildly different shapes with every listen.

In its arrangements, grae responds to Aromanticism's minimalism with moments of utter bombast. The original cast of unorthodox bass guitar, harps, strings, and flutes are joined by ambitious production choices that stretch and manipulate every sound into an unrecognizable, starkly original territory. Groove takes hold in ‘Bless Me’ and ‘Neither/Nor’. Percussion becomes old-school mechanical and near industrial ('Virile', 'Conveyor'), saxophones are soaked in grand-hall reverb in modern Bon Iver fashion ('Colouour'), and barrages of pad instrumentals become so blurred and shapeless that identifying the source-sounds becomes impossible. Vocals—both spoken and sung—are fed through a meat grinder of tones. 'Gagarin' submerges Sumney into a fuzzed-out, octaved bliss over Gregorian-esque chants, and more strikingly, Taiye Selasi's spoken parts in grae's interstices shift from conversational to melodic, then from arrhythmic to gridlocked—progressively becoming less obscured as the record moves forward.

In the spaces between all of grae's most daring cuts exists Sumney's trademark intimate and bone-dry song-writing—particularly in the album's textural second half. The smoke and mirrors of grae's outsized production don't fade away entirely, but the intimacy that Sumney so memorably summoned in Aromanticism is still a central part of his music—and by nature of grae's liberal running-time, there may be more of this type of song represented here than there was on Sumney's 34-minute debut. Sumney has the uncanny ability to pen songs that feel like direct eye contact with the otherwise inaccessible songwriter.

This, of course, is only possible through Sumney's most defining feature: his limitless, elastic voice. Sumney supplements his serpentining falsetto lines with an increased use of his lower full-voice register—dipping his toes into sultry, fried baritone tones with regularity. Few artists weaponize their voice the way Sumney does. A moment in 'Cut Me' sees Sumney create an otherworldly descending harmony that is outright upsetting before it finally resolves into consonance. 'Keeps Me Alive', a starkly minimal tune, ends with an impossibly controlled vocal descant that straddles supernatural and human. As always, the melodies float above such playful chord progressions that they requires the listener to develop some relationship with grae before making sense of all of Sumney's vocal hooks, but his performance helps smooth the transition.

Having the complete album available helps the transition too: the moments that were too obscure to initially engage with on grae’s “part one” are now seen through the proper lenses. This is most obvious in the record's aforementioned interstitials: skits, speeches and atmospheric narratives that recall Kendrick Lamar's slow-reveal poem in To Pimp a Butterfly. grae's final three songs provide the awaited "aha!" moments that provide closure to the album's earlier breadcrumbs—particularly as Selasi is allowed to finish her anecdote ("that's exactly what I've been my whole life—I’ve been islanded"). This moment, finally unobscured, is so disarmingly conversational—in perfect tandem with Sumney's own blunt, uncompromising lyrics. "I just want someone to listen to me who ain't tryna do me", he croons in 'In Bloom', then later sings in ‘Two Dogs’ of a dog that was "whiter than a health food store". On grae's most blustery song, 'Virile', Sumney opens with a decidedly casual line about a "hike through [the] Blue Ridge Mountains", striking an informal tone about his life in and around Asheville, North Carolina instead of fulfilling expectation and leaning into the song's mystic, psychedelic energy.

It seems Sumney is never less than fully himself. Much has been written about his reluctance to be shaped into something commercially recognizable, and he does well here to make a case for the "grae”—the colouring outside the lines. The line drawn in the sand in grae's initial half-release—“I am aware of my inherent multiplicity and anyone wishing to meaningfully engage with me or my work must be too”—demanded a patience and willingness to accept Sumney's undefinable nature, and the full album now rewards the listener who engages with grae in between the lines. Nothing gets to be interpreted at face value, and certainly nothing is immediate—grae’s beauty unravels slowly on repeated listens. The temptation to unfavourably compare grae's ambition to Aromanticism's simplicity robs Sumney of the diligence he is asking of music-listeners: categorical boxes be damned, grae needs your time and probably some homework to be fully engaged with. For a man who already carved out a complete trademark sound on his debut album, it is impressive the high expectations didn't cripple him entirely—instead, he answered the call with vigour and unrelenting sense of self. Sumney's grae is true to the Moses Sumney we know, and anybody with a problem with that will have to go straight to the horse's mouth with their complaints.



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user ratings (42)
3.5
great

Comments:Add a Comment 
granitenotebook
Staff Reviewer
May 18th 2020


1008 Comments


great review

Rowan5215
Staff Reviewer
May 18th 2020


43747 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2

yup, and one of the best albums of the year too. this really needs time to sink in so I'm not surprised most are overlooking it, but it's a triumph. totally 180'd on Part 1 after the full thing came out lol but 2 is the winner. Two Dogs and Bless Me are some of the best tracks of the year

SowingSeason
Moderator
May 18th 2020


34550 Comments


I was terribly unimpressed with this during a cursory/background listen, but I've heard way too many positive things not to give it a proper, dedicated go. Review is Waior standard of excellence as usual.

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dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
May 18th 2020


1302 Comments


Great, great review. I enjoy the points about Part 2 completing the mystery and storyline of part 1. I do feel as though the "skits" in Part 2 help to fully flesh out the concept.

I'm just not as sold musically on part 2. I think Part 1 is much stronger musically, although Two Dogs and Bless Me are both brilliant. Part 2 slows down the album far too much for my liking, so the overproduction makes it blend in together a lot more, which isn't an issue I had with Part. I'm really struggling with this. Part 1 is still in the running for my AOTY, but isn't the full album. I think Part 2 made this a stronger album in terms of concept, but I also think that I would prefer to just listen to Part 1 and skip out on most of Part 2. I have no idea where I stand on this

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Winesburgohio
Staff Reviewer
May 19th 2020


2937 Comments


what an outstanding review tho

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Slex
Contributing Reviewer
May 19th 2020


9618 Comments


Seriously this is a shining write-up

Digging: Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 4

KevinKC
May 19th 2020


889 Comments


Cringy review.

MarsKid
Contributing Reviewer
May 19th 2020


11219 Comments


Wonderfully done as others have already said. It can certainly cause a bit of a discord amongst fans whenever an artist changes direction, but it sounds like it pays off here. A double album is very difficult to pull off, yet the ambition seemingly behind it might be enough to carry that through. This definitely makes me want to try it out eventually.

I quite enjoyed the intro paragraph too and how the disc is like a classic film in that regard. A long experience, but a rewarding one.

Waior
Contributing Reviewer
May 19th 2020


11686 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Thanks, folks.



I wouldn't argue that Sumney is taking things in a different direction, just doing more, more, more of what was hinted at in Aromanticism. Sumney has always been 150% about his work so I certainly expected an album like this--I just wasn't sure if it'd be a "great" album, and I wasn't sure until the full release either.



Relinquished
May 19th 2020


44784 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

yea this rules

blvckbloodysludge
May 20th 2020


6 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Who the frick is giving this a 2.5 and lower smh

greg84
Emeritus
May 20th 2020


7633 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Virile is by far my favorite song on this. It's absolutely incredible.

Digging: Run the Jewels - Run the Jewels 4

conesmoke
May 20th 2020


6318 Comments


What the hell is happening on that album art.

conesmoke
May 20th 2020


6318 Comments


Looks like a lanky headless man is having sex with a boulder

greg84
Emeritus
May 21st 2020


7633 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

It's probably some kind of a metaphor lol

rabidfish
May 21st 2020


5977 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

his vocals can get a get grating after a while, but it's really nice overall.

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greg84
Emeritus
May 21st 2020


7633 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I dig the Part 1 more. Part 2 seems way too slow for me. Bless me is a great track though.

rabidfish
May 21st 2020


5977 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

part 2 is redundant. some aight material in there but all the interesting stuff is in cd 1, def

Romulus
May 22nd 2020


8683 Comments


oh man this is certainly something that demands more listens but it super was not there on the first run through for me. will inevitably check back in with a 4.5 in a month or so

neekafat
Contributing Reviewer
May 22nd 2020


18904 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Okay so this album is still incredible but I fucking HATE this trend in music like this album and Negro Swan where they just have interludes that directly spell out the themes for you

maybe it's just my time in film school that makes it so appalling but fuck is it annoying



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