Moses Sumney Embraces Complexity on "grae: Part 1"

Moses Sumney's "grae: Part 1" contains a kaleidoscope of sounds and meanings.

Moses Sumney's recent Pitchfork cover story might've proclaimed that the musician is on his way to becoming a superstar, but his new album grae: Part 1 indicates a desire to avoid the algorithm-friendly mainstream.

That's not a bad thing. Experimental and rigorous, at times angular and at other times soft, grae: Part 1 often feels like it's trying to jump out and touch the listener, and it demands (and deserves) full-body attention. Songs like "Gagarin" deserve to be fully experienced—given the chance, that track reaches multiple senses, if not multiple dimensions. But played on the radio or on laptop speakers at a party, it might easily dissipate into the winds of distraction.

grae works sort of like a prism, refracting light in places, casting shadow in others, expanding and revealing its full spectrum when it meets the right light source. It's fragile, delicate, and personal, ragged and resistant and never simple. Instead, both in terms of its orchestration and Sumney's own virtuosic voice, it always feels on the verge of coming apart, peeling open or fragmenting like ice on a warm winter day. His falsetto, hoarse and warbling, can be jarring at times, and often the music is equally complex and resistant to immediate palatability. "Neither/Nor" embodies this complexity; it builds up to a wildly intricate climax, glittering with layers of harp and synth and pounding drums and aggressive basslines. Throughout the whole album, Sumney never stands still, despite the quietness and precision of his arrangements.

The lyrics sometimes grow abstract and mind-bending, warping like time does when you're lost in a new city or stuck in a moment. "Hollow as a hallway, Your fist fits right through me," sings Sumney on the final song, "Polly," which is as dismal as they come—Sumney is literally asking to dissolve, and the music mirrors this, growing so gossamer-thin that it nearly disappears entirely.


At other times, Sumney insists on largeness. The album's maximalism and its hall-of-mirrors-like multidimensionality seem to have been part of its central purpose. On the song "also also also and and and," Sumney speaks the line, "I insist upon my right to be multiple. I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity… I am aware of my inherent multiplicity, and anyone wishing to meaningfully engage with me and my work must be too," he says, his voice refracted through a robotic effect and over swirling saxophone. He repeats "multiplicity" over and over, and his voice echoes and grows into layers as a sultry beat clicks into place. It's an entrancing, if slightly esoteric, exploration of personal multidimensionality in a world that often asks us to distill ourselves down to one thing—one identity, one mistake, one purpose.

In "boxes," another spoken-word track, Sumney says, "I truly believe that people who define you control you. And the most significant thing that anyone can do—but especially black women and men—is think about who gave them those definitions, and rewrite those definitions for themselves."

Sometimes it's hard to tell if Sumney is defining himself or breaking down definitions, if he's pulling back a curtain or surrounding himself with thicker layers, if he's building up walls or letting us in. Of course, the presence of that obscure largesse might be the point in itself.

Culture News

Is Carole Baskin Inheriting a Haunted "Indian" Burial Ground with Tiger King Zoo?

Current owner Jeff Lowe claims there are bodies, including "a young American Indian boy," buried on the property

It was recently reported that Carole Baskin had been awarded the property of the Tiger King Zoo—formerly the G.W. Zoo—in Wynnewood, Oklahoma after a judgment found in her favor.

As fans of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King will know, her long-standing legal feud with Joe Exotic (AKA Joseph Maldonado-Passage, né Shreibvogel) over his violation of the Big Cat Rescue trademark resulted in a million dollar settlement in her favor. But for the most part Exotic managed to dodge paying Baskin through a series of illegal property transfers that temporarily protected his animal park from seizure.

Now that Exotic is in prison for attempting to have Baskin murdered—along with illegal animal trafficking and several violations of the Endangered Species Act—a judge has finally ruled that the park is hers, and she will be taking over ownership of the 16-acre property later this year. But Jeff Lowe—the park's current owner and the personification of a mid-life crisis—insists that there are no hard feelings, saying, "She deserves this property."

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Tone Deaf-The Brag

It's impossible to step into the world of Justin Vernon without surrendering ourselves.

We traverse through each of his works when we are alone, knowing that by the end we'll all have cried, reflected, and been gripped by existential catharsis. Vernon's one-man act, Bon Iver, has historically humbled us with his uncanny ability to tap into the power of nostalgia. I would argue that no Millennial can replay For Emma, Forever Ago (2007) without remembering exactly where they were and how they felt when "Flume" and "For Emma" first hit our ears. The journey since then has been long and meaningful: 22, a Million (2016) proved Vernon to be much more than a folk troubadour with the voice of an angel. He was a magician, able to bend and mold technology in ways no one thought possible, while still keeping his pulse on the same power that makes listeners in 2019 burst into tears whenever "Skinny Love" plays on shuffle.

It's also no secret that his discography is heavily influenced by the seasons. For Emma represented winter, Bon Iver spring, and 22, a Million summer. Despite the grandiosity of this objective, each one's met its goal time and time again. Now with i,i, set to represent autumn, Vernon, in theory, has finished his cycle—except it's not autumn. It's the beginning of August, and we just finished out the hottest month in history. Bon Iver's next album wasn't supposed to come out for another three weeks; but Vernon, for some reason, chose to release it today, while still insisting that it doesn't release "in its entirety" until tomorrow. The roll-out is confusing and feels like a distraction from what is actually a magnificent album.

On i,i, Vernon has refined the glitchy subtexts of 22, a Million, making them more ambient and subdued, mostly to his gain. "iMi" is the best example of this, relying on subtle use of horns and ukulele to pull at our heartstrings, rather than resorting to the sweeping inflations we're used to on songs like "29 #Strafford APTS," "33 'GOD'" and the like. "Hey, Ma" and "Faith" carry the same energy, relying on a "less is more" tactic, much to Vernon's benefit. But the ambiance overwhelms at times: "Sh'Diah" could have benefitted from being an interlude rather than a full track, but i,i represents a pinnacle in the career of Justin Vernon. His music is impeccably toned and seems to have come full circle.

Still, one has to wonder where Vernon will go from here. The cycle has ended, albeit awkwardly, but Bon Iver's foundation has always relied on the changing seasons. With his thematic creations in the rearview, the question remains as to who Bon Iver is without them and what else he has to offer other than these nostalgic lullabies.