UNF Spinnaker

Album review: “Grae” by Moses Sumney

Carissa Marques, Creative Services Director

Introduction: 

Grae is Moses Sumney’s double-disc album that was fully released on May 15, 2020. The first twelve songs were released as grae: Part One on February 21, 2020. Sumney is a genre-bending artist based out of Ashville, North Carolina. If I could choose a few words to describe his music they would be ethereal, rich, and passionate. The emotion-heavy lyrics throughout this album focus on topics like identity and purpose. If you’re looking for something that’s on the outskirts of R&B and indie-soul, this album is for you. 

  1. insula: The first part of the double album opens with author, Taiye Selasi, repeating the phrase, “isolation comes from ‘insula’ which means island,” over spacey sounding synths and chimes. This sets the mood for the album, showing that there will be themes of self-reflection and loneliness. 
  2. Cut Me: Sumney said this song, “was my version of an old soul song with some futuristic sprinkles on it. When I was writing it, I wanted to make a tribute to the best singer of all time, Aretha Franklin,” in an interview with BBC Radio 1’s Future Sounds with Annie Mac. He executes the old-soul sound perfectly with his smooth voice and instrumentals that include everything from horns to piano. He talks about how during life’s most difficult times is when he feels most productive. My favorite lyric is, “If there’s no pain, is there any progress?”
  3. In Bloom: This song talks about the relationship between Sumney and a friend that lies somewhere between platonic and romantic. The friend is showing forms of romantic affection, but says how Sumney is just a close friend. Sumney sings, “In the meantime, we’ll get it straight / I hope our friendship can recuperate.” He cherishes his friend, and wants their friendship to work out even if a romantic relationship doesn’t. The overall theme of mixed messages is something lots of us have probably experienced in life, and Sumney sings about it over a beautiful instrumental that sounds as if it’s “blooming.”
  4. Virile: Sumney’s strong voice climbs octaves throughout “Virile.” The instruments are a mix of intense guitar and drums as well as delicate harp. The word “virile” is associated with strength and masculinity, but Sumney challenges these stereotypes in his lyrics by stating: “and I realize none of this matters ’cause I will return to dust and matter.” He understands how the world sets these expectations for men and sees so many, “playin’ the part.” Sumney believes that it is up to the individual to choose their identity and how they present themselves to the world. 
  5. Conveyor: This song carries the same instrumental patterns as the prior one as Sumney continues to sing about how he felt like he was required to play some sort of part that society had written out for him. He makes analogies to the human body and insect communities, and how everybody has a working part for the greater society. This is challenged in the next song. 
  6. boxes: “boxes” starts with an electronic sound. The song includes Taiye Selasi, Michael Chabon, Ezra Miller speaking in auto tuned voices. They talk about identity and how people cling to putting others in “boxes.” Author Ayesha K. Faines says, “And the most significant thing that any person can do, but especially black women and men, is to think about who gave them their definitions and rewrite those definitions for themselves.” Though applicable at any time, these lyrics seem especially relevant now. 
  7. Gagarin: The mood of the album transitions back into an R&B and jazzy vibe with this seventh track. The title is in reference to Yuri Gagarin, the first human to venture to outer space. The lyrics of the song have astral analogies as Sumney sings of wanting to have a bigger purpose, and to not just live his life for himself. The outro to the song is filled with spacey voices and synths, fitting the lyrics quite well. 
  8. jill/jack: R&B artist Jill Scott opens the song with her hypnotic voice in spoken word poetry. Jill and Sumney go back and forth speaking about the masculinity and femininity of posture. This is all spoken over airy synths and echoey beats. 
  9. Colouour: A friend showed me this song a few weeks back, and this was my first impression of Moses Sumney. I was instantly a fan of the soothing brass instruments that opened the song along with the delicate sounds of a harp. Sumney’s voice is like warm honey dripping over a crackling fire. The lyrics of this song are so poetic as he sounds like he is singing to a lover, suggesting what colors they should wear and what they mean. 
  10. also also also and and and: Another interlude with the former guests speaking, the tenth track talks about multiplicity -in this case regarding identity. I took it as a statement for those that are non-binary, but it could be just about personality as well. The lyrics, “what I no longer do is take pains to explain it or defend it. That is exhausting, repetitive, and draining project,” reflect how people should not have to explain themselves to be accepted, especially by those who are close to them. 
  11. Neither/Nor: An introspective song, “Neither/Nor” talks about finding one’s comfortability with the unforeseen future. Sumney sings, “I fell in love with the in-between,” but later, “only the lonely are lukewarm.” He expresses that he is neutral about dying alone, and has similar feelings for people not knowing exactly who he is, sort of in continuation with the theme of “also also also and and and,” and not having to pick a side. 
  12. Polly: The vocals in this song will send goosebumps down your arms. There is a light acoustic guitar playing quietly throughout the background of the song, but what’s enchanting is the mix of the vocals. Though the sound is absolutely beautiful, the lyrics talk about the engagements of a polyamorous relationship, hence the title “Polly.” Sumney is just one of his love interest’s lovers, and he wonders if any of the feelings are real, or merely just a game or chore. “Are you dancin’ with me? or just merely dancin’,” shows the questions that run through his brain about his lover’s behavior. 
  13. Two Dogs: This is the first song in the second disc of the album. Sumney’s voice trails toward higher notes throughout this song as he sings about the different polarities in life through the metaphor of two dogs. He refers to them as “Yin and Yang,” the concepts from Chinese Taoism that represent the duality of the universe. As different as people can seem, there is a certainty that everyone returns to dust. Sumney sings, “I learned in death we all are unified in countenance.” 
  14. Bystanders: This is one of the sadder songs of the album, not only in sound, but lyrically as well. The constant struggle that we’ve seen throughout the album about dealing with the layers of identity and personality have all been put to a stop here. The lyric that stood out to me was, “don’t waste your candor on bystanders, they’ll watch you waste away.” Of course you want to be honest with people, but sometimes it is not worth the struggle to explain yourself to someone who’s morals don’t align with yours. The title of the album is also mentioned here, “but morality is grey.”  
  15. Me in 20 Years: This is probably my favorite song on the album. The lyrics and the instrumentals are extremely moving in a way where it sounds like it should be playing at the end of a grand romantic film. It’s kind of ironic that it sounds romantic even though the song is about the lack of romance in Sumney’s life. He sings of wondering if he will be alone forever and how to be content in solitude. With lyrics like, “is it laced within my DNA to be braced in endless January,” you’re left reflecting on your own future. 
  16. Keeps Me Alive: A pick-me-up from the prior heart-wrencher, “Keeps Me Alive” talks about the main thing that keeps Sumney going – childlike curiosity. He finds that the search for truth and trying new experiences are things worth living for. 
  17. Lucky Me: This song is softer as Sumney’s vocals sound a bit more airy over gentle strings and synths. He talks about moving on from a relationship, and that even though it didn’t work out, his partner, “showed me there’s another way to go.” I think what he may be trying to say is that there’s something to take away from every relationship, whether it’s good or bad. They act as ways to learn how you should be treated and how to love others. 
  18. and so I come to isolation: This song is sort of a refrain of the first track, “insula,” reinforcing the idea that Sumney feels like an island when it comes to relationships. 
  19. Bless Me: A request of sorts to a gentle lover, “Bless Me” is Sumney asking for just a little bit more love from a fling that showed him kindness. This song has lovely choir-like vocals in the background, and is also the last track Sumney sings on. 

20.) before you go: I feel as if the guest appearances throughout the album sort of acted as storytellers between songs. For the closing track, Michaela Coel, Ezra Miller, and Taiye Selasi question what it means to be in love, and how most of it is just a lot of aching.

Summary:

This album really found a way to pull directly at listeners’ heartstrings, but in the most beautiful way possible. I really enjoyed the experimental sound that ventured between R&B, jazz, and even a futuristic kind of indie-pop. If you get the chance to watch the music videos from this album, I definitely recommend them because they add to the storytelling. I would give this double-disc masterpiece 5/5 Spinnaker Sails. 

Standout Tracks: “Cut Me,” “Colouour,” “Neither/Nor,” “Polly,” “Bystanders,” and “Me in 20 Years.”

___

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Album review: “Grae” by Moses Sumney