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
'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.