It's easy to see the world in binary. Good or bad, love or hate, friend or lover, right or wrong. Things are, or they are not. Yes, it's easy to see the world in pairs, but in doing so, we limit ourselves from experiencing the full spectrum of life. In reality, binary views are overly simplistic—degrading, even—and rarely paint the full picture. In the first entry of Moses Sumney's double LP græ (labeled græ: Part 1; Part 2 will come out May 15), the vast space between black and white is stretched open, allowing the infinite shades of grey to be examined with crystal clear focus.
When græ's first single, "Virile," dropped, it was clear that Sumney was moving in a different direction from his fantastic debut Aromanticism (2017). Where tracks on Aromanticism contracted, "Virile" explodes outwards. Everything about the song, from the bombastic instrumental arrangement to the overt declarations of masculine power, suggested a complete 180 for Sumney's music. However, the next single, "Polly," is the polar opposite. It's insular, tender, emotive, and sexual in every way that "Virile" isn't. Herein lies græ: take two opposing ideas, tear them open, and examine what lies in the space between.
Make no mistake: græ: Part 1 is an intensely personal album. Many of Sumney's ruminations revolve around himself: his identity, his relationships, his masculinity. "I fell in love with the in—between," Sumney proclaims on the grooving "Neither/Nor." But to imply these examinations can't be extrapolated outward is wrong. græ seeks to break down the rigid concept of binaries which trap us all.
It's hard to fully explain what græ: Part 1 sounds like. Perhaps that's because Sumney enlisted 40 producers to help create the variety of soundscapes coloring the album. Sumney's music always defies strict genre labels, but græ: Part 1 seems to move past the concept of genre itself. This is most evident on cuts like "Gagarin," which starts with Sumney's signature falsetto laid over barely audible piano tinkling. Then, his voice drops, as a dramatic filter seemingly triples his every utterance, and a Bill Evans–esque piano line meanders up and down the keyboard. A slow, deliberate bassline fills the song with malaise as Sumney questions his purpose on earth. "I give my life / To something bigger than me" he declares with finality, as the production swells, peaks, and crashes, a wave of cold, dark, water. This song feels how the color grey looks: dour, uncertain, and directionless—intentionally so.
Other songs are much warmer. "Cut Me" and "In Bloom" are much more certain, optimistic even. On "Cut Me," a funky bassline pairs with a jazzy trombone, creating a lively atmosphere and a fairly upbeat opener. "In Bloom" mixes electric guitar arpeggios with blissful orchestral swells. In one of the more cheeky, lighthearted moments on the album, Sumney sings "You don't want that, do you? / You just want someone to listen to you / Who ain't tryna screw you / I swear I want that, too, yeah." The extended rhyme is just one example of the genius songwriting littered throughout the record.
And of course, there's the closing track, "Polly." Describing its raw emotion seems almost impossible—put on a pair of headphones, close your eyes, and listen. The stripped back, warm production choices for this track stand in stark contrast to the rest of the album. The only instruments present are a lone guitar and Sumney's voice. He somersaults across octaves with ease, harmonies floating in and out of the mix with the utmost care and restraint. He begs his polyamorous partner to stay, to choose him.
"1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6," Sumney counts his lover's other partners, "Am I just your Friday dick?" It's a crass question, and one we've all asked at some point or another. But it feels intimate, hand–picked, and deeply personal. Sumney's hurt and desperation is so visceral, so tangible, and yet, so universal. "You love dancing with me / Or you just love dancing?" he despairs. Then, "I want to be cotton candy / In the mouth of many a lover / Saccharine and slick technicolor / I'll dissolve". So we dissolve, too, melting into the muddled, confusing void that spans the space between just hooking up and being in love.
It's difficult to see what doesn't actually exist. It's difficult to pin down the concept of flux. It's difficult to examine the uncertain nuances which drive us to do things we do, to be the way we are. Yet Moses Sumney is able to do this across the entirety of græ: Part 1. With this gorgeous, complex first part of his sophomore album, Sumney has once again proven he's one of the greatest singer–songwriters working today.