New Moses Sumney album experiments with form

Alice Feng/The Occidental

Indie singer-songwriter Moses Sumney is releasing his lengthy sophomore album with an unconventional rollout. Instead of the typical double disk format, Sumney’s latest record “Grae” is available in two multi-song installments. This savvy marketing strategy stretches across four months and keeps fans in a state of suspense. Part one of the new album was released Feb 21. Part two is scheduled for streaming May 15. On the latter date, Sumney’s record label Jagjaguwar will release physical copies containing both installments on the artist’s Bandcamp page. As a result, most of the record will exist exclusively on streaming platforms long before it’s available on disc or vinyl. New music in the digital marketplace turns old in a matter of weeks, but two separate releases may extend short-lived attention.

Sumney joins similar artists Angel Olsen, Bon Iver and Lonnie Holley as members of Jagjaguwar’s eclectic alternative rock roster. In 2017, his critically acclaimed debut record “Aromanticism” showcased 11 songs of lush production and crooning vocals. Three years later, part one of “Grae” builds on this foundation.

The 28-year-old California native and former Ghanaian resident intentionally resists firm categorization. Sumney’s music passes through indie rock, R&B and stints of funk. Among his contemporaries, shifty artists like Yves Tumor and FKA Twigs also share a style that melts between genres. They each have idiosyncrasies that set them apart from the predictable pop star role. It gives them the flexibility to artistically experiment. Unique costumes and dramatic live performances strengthen their creative personas. However, it is Sumney who most easily slips into the recognizable stylings of influential artists before him. His falsetto reaches the heights of 1980s R&B singer Terence Trent D’Arby, but it carries a hushed and patient tone. There are moments in Sumney’s music where older artists might have opted for more straightforward vocal power. Instead, his effect is all about reduction and detailing small adjustments.

The instrumentals throughout Sumney’s catalog unfold slowly while his whispers ripple outward. Sometimes the music is simply too light, reducing it to mere background noise. He stretches syllables to agonizing lengths, as if the words are being gradually pulled out of him. This technique gives his voice an elliptical quality. It is easy to become lost in a word when drawn-out sounds take the place of standard pronunciation. Sumney’s pitch elevates to express a sense of yearning. Such dramatics are usually designed to fit a live performance rather than a recording. Perhaps it is fitting that in 2017 several of his songs — “Plastic” and “Doomed” — were featured in the popular television shows “Insecure” and “Orange Is the New Black.” The atmospheric sounds on “Aromanticism” are quiet enough to compliment, but not distract from, a visual scene. A year later he was chosen to perform during chic fashion brand Eckhaus Latta’s spring show. Sumney is in high demand because he can fuse his aesthetic into other art forms.

Sumney’s decision to release two installments of “Grae” is experimental but also practical. His style becomes tired if it wears on too long, and 38 minutes is a reasonable run time for sensitive musing. The juxtaposition of romance and politics is once again central to his follow-up effort. Several tracks on “Grae” are made up of sentiments about relationships in different forms. The track “In Bloom” narrates miscommunication between close friends, while “Cut Me” describes how the artist finds inspiration in his surroundings. Sumney weaves between his songs as robotic voices glitch in and out at various points in the album. Its messages sound like space transmissions. During “Conveyor” and “boxes,” the production wiggles out of place to create exciting moments of tension. These songs shift his view towards identity. The final track on Sumney’s debut album was titled “Lonely World,” and he is still investigating what it means to fit inside solitary space. His obsession with self-definition all but consumes the entirety of “Grae.”

The album gains momentum when Sumney’s production asserts itself with dynamic force. “Virile” is the lead single, and it is one of his densest tracks to date. As he sings about hiking through nature, a pattern of sturdy guitar chords clashes over rhythmic drums. His feelings of isolation bubble to the surface again with the words “Dear, son/You pick your own prison.” The song reveals that he is painfully aware of how unhealthy conventions can manifest on innocent surfaces. While challenging norms, Sumney is also concerned with how to replace them. His lyrics claim that new definitions and titles must be accompanied by action. Part one of “Grae” shows Sumney sharpening his craft. It is more distinct and fragmentary than the previous “Aromanticism.” For now, the experimental album is both interesting and incomplete.