In his 1855 poem “Song of Myself,” American poet Walt Whitman examines the abstract and absurd nature of the self and observes the poetic other with his writing.
Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney is a poet as well, and his new album, Græ, drives at the same themes of self and identity Whitman focused on more than a century ago. The distinction of Sumney as a poet holds weight, because although Græ is a piece of music, its lyrics make it out to be a collection of poetry set to music. And just as much as the album is about the separation of music and lyrics, it is also about the separation of the self from the other, a solipsistic approach that benefits Sumney more than it wounds him.
In fact, separation is the basic format of the album, which was released in two parts in February and May. This bisection is emphasized on “Cut Me,” where Sumney weaves imagery of being cut to pieces with staccato music. The bass notes are wholly distinct from one another. The piano notes are, as well. In the early stages of Græ, everything is black and white. Here is one note. Here is another.
The purpose of emphasizing separation is made more clear in tracks such as “Gagarin,” a smoky lounge ballad where Sumney sings, “The galaxy’s a broken mirror.” Here, Sumney breaks down the flaws in identification — that it is always done through someone else. On “Boxes,” he makes this distinction even more clearly, as guest Ayesha Faines discusses the process of self-definition and the power of identification.
These guest monologues make intermittent appearances throughout the album and often serve as guiding points for Sumney’s vision — and yet they are always told through the voices of others. These reminders of the poetic other amplify Sumney’s loneliness, a subject he addressed on 2017’s Aromanticism. While that album tackled the concept of romance, however, Græ enters the cosmic landscape of the self, dealing with one of the most bewildering aspects of the human condition.
Sumney addresses himself directly on a few occasions in the album, such as on “Neither/Nor,” in which the chorus adopts an almost childlike pitch, and on “Me in 20 Years,” when he sings, “I wonder how I’ll sleep at night/ With a cavity by my side,” addressing future loneliness and inevitability.
Græ also features numerous instances of the direct relationships with others in which Sumney has found himself. On “Polly,” he speaks to the difficulty of being a singular person in the context of a polyamorous relationship, and on “Virile” and “Conveyor,” he approaches societal expectations of himself as a man and as a cog in a larger machine. These songs are tragic, not only in their haunting performances, but also in their broader philosophical scope.
The music tends toward the understated, so as to not undermine the lyrical message of the songs. Some tracks, however, such as “Keeps Me Alive” and “Bless Me,” feature fantastic guitar melodies to underline the lyrics. And on “Colouour,” a saxophone draws the listener in before disappearing into Sumney’s gospel — appropriately, it is one of the more lush tracks on the album.
The strongest moments on the album are when the music and lyrics meld together in Sumney’s voice. A prime example of this is “Bystanders,” where Sumney sings falsetto over an empty, swirling soundscape. His voice falls and rises as he sings, “Honesty is the most moral way/ But morality is grey,” hitting a brilliant vibrato on the final word before the song fades into chirping birdsong.
On one of the album’s monologues, “Also Also Also And And And,” Taiye Selasi speaks of the right to be perceived with multiplicity, and that, to engage with the artist’s work, the critic must also embrace this interpretation. It is tempting to approach this track, and the album as a whole, as a puzzle. But Græ is not a mathematical puzzle to be solved. It is, fundamentally, an expression of human experience and how unsolvable the mystery of existence is.