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Moses Sumney: Aromanticism
by George Graham
(Jagjaguwar Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/28/2017)
As we have pointed out at various times in this series, that singer-songwriter records have taken a lot of different directions from the conventional folkie singing love songs, to the roots rockers, to those taking a more eclectic musical direction. This week we have a distinctive and imaginative release that breaks a lot of conventions, and in the process makes for absorbing music. It’s by Moses Sumney, and his new release, his first full-length recording is called Aromanticism. In it, he creates rather ethereal music whose lyrical premise is described by its title, with “aromanticism” defined as the inability to experience romantic love. In other words its a set of songs about not wanting to be in love.
Moses Sumney is a native of San Bernadino, California, but at age 10, moved with his parents, both ministers, moved back to their country of birth, Ghana, where they stayed for six years. Sumney often found himself alone there and not being close to any friends. He says that those years in Ghana taught him how to spend time alone. Though he had an interest in music, he was too shy to perform it to anyone in Ghana. At age 16, he returned to the US and began to find an outlet. He studied creative writing at UCLA, and began performing first around his dorm and then at open-mics at coffee shops. He developed a friendship with the alternative R&B band KING, whose music business connections led to Sumney being pursued by talent agents. He began performing in New York and elsewhere. He released a home-made EP in 2014 and a more produced EP last year. Now with more sophisticated, but often very spare-sounding production, he is out with Aromanticism, which combines an atmospheric sound with vocals sung in a soulful falsetto, with unconventional instrumentation, with drums or percussion infrequently heard. Lyrically, the album, as one writer put it, “celebrates lovelessness,” hardly conventional for a singer-songwriter. Sumney pointed out that his often whispery falsetto vocals grew out of shyness with his music when he was growing up, singing at a whisper in his room, so as not to let others hear. He also feels that his approach was shaped by a diagnosis of ADHD.
Aromanticism was made over an extended period and each track has its own personnel, though Sumney plays a lot of the instruments and does extensive multitracking on the vocals. There are added players for a string section and a horn section, and there are some other orchestral instruments that are added to the electronic atmospheric textures on the album.
Opening is a short multiply overdubbed a cappella piece called Man on the Moon (Reprise), which establishes the album’s eclectic credentials. <<>>
That leads into a song called Don’t Bother Calling, whose lyrics get into the theme of aromanticism. Sumney’s distinctive whispery falsetto forms an interesting sonic blend with the atmospheric string arrangements. <<>>
A track that can evoke the quality of a jazz ballad but with Sumney’s distinctive sonic pastiche is called Plastic. It’s both laid-back-sounding and somewhat iconoclastic. <<>>
The album has a couple of short interludes that are also quite interesting. One called Stocism, is a bit of a spoken autobiographical recollection. <<>>
About the only piece with full drums is Lonely World which begins in a typically atmospheric away <<> and before building in intensity, in a very creative arrangement. <<>>
A contrast to that is the church-like, ruminating composition called Doomed. Lyrically Sumney questions the lyrical premise of the album, the idea of shunning love. <<>>
The album ends with Self Help Tape, a beautifully atmospheric track in which Sumney does more of his multiply overdubbed vocals but with no lyrics. <<>>
Aromanticism, the new recording by the distinctive Los Angeles based singer-songwriter Moses Sumney is an absorbing record that takes the concept of the confessional singer-songwriter in a very different direction than is typical for the genre. His eclectic atmospheric music, largely free of percussion, and his lyrics about desiring to shun romantic love, rather than pursue it, definitely set the record apart from your run-of-the-mill folkie or roots-rock singer-songwriter. The album’s approach is subtle, and despite the sparse sound, there’s there’s a lot going on in terms of creative ideas and musical arrangements.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A,” with the vocal sound clean despite all the layering, and the mix helping to create the ethereal texture of the music. The dynamic range, how well the recording maintains the difference between loud and soft is mediocre at bast.
One would not think that an album of songs that are largely about not wanting to fall in love, performed an ethereal setting with a highly layered vocal sound would make a lot of sense, but Moses Sumney has made a very creative and distinctive album, which bodes well for this 26-year old on his first full-length release.
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