A showcase for Sumney’s quicksilver voice.
“Am I vital/ If my heart is idle/ Am I doomed?” So asks singer-songwriter Moses Sumney on “Doomed,” the sublime nadir of his debut record Aromanticism. Only 26 years old, the sullen auteur seems to radiate a world-weary sensuality of which these 11 tracks are a potent distillation. Since 2014’s lo-fi Mid-City Island, Sumney has steadily released a heady mélange of folk and soul with brilliant flashes of jazz harmony, and a spot on the Insecure soundtrack and a collaboration with Solange on A Seat at the Table propelled him into the indie music spotlight. The politics of aromanticism, or the inability to feel or give romantic love, is something Sumney has explored in interviews. But in his music, he’s less interested in the earthly consequences of love-driven capitalism than he is in the spiritual burdens such a lack of love engenders.
The driving irony of these songs is Sumney’s appropriation of the language of Romantic poetry; lines like “Hollow one with inverted tongue/ From whence does fulfillment come?” or “Lonely world casts a shadow on the shallow love it hurls/ To the feet of swine it need not cast its pearls” don’t sound that far off from Shelley or Coleridge attempting to capture the ineffable beauty of desire. But here, Sumney has sketched the negative image of romantic love while retaining its ripe desperation.
While his earliest music relied on sparse acoustic guitar, subsequent releases have pushed the bounds of color and texture, and his debut exhibits his lushest arrangements to date. Instead of over-encumbering his bleak meditations, the record’s high fidelity draws a sumptuous parallel to them. Thanks to his deft use of gaping negative spaces, Sumney is able to revel in symphonic gestures, as on the highlight “Quarrel, where prickly harps presage spare flourishes of low-brass before the song’s building fever breaks into an extended coda replete with electric piano and gorgeous, edgeless synths straight out of Innervisions. Sumney’s trademark guitar makes an appearance on fan-favorite “Plastic” and “Don’t Bother Calling,” where its warm, muted tone is buoyed by a bed of dreamy orchestral strings. But Aromanticism is ultimately a showcase for Sumney’s quicksilver voice that bends and swells with delightful unpredictability before suddenly proliferating into a massive choir delivering endless harmonic surprises.
Still, there’s no denying the most surprising—and disappointing—aspect of this record: its brevity. While Sumney’s songwriting lends itself to a languorous sprawl, Aromanticism taps out at just 36 minutes. Stranger still is the preponderance of interstitial sketches like “Man on the Moon (Reprise),” “Stoicism,” and “The Cocoon-Eyed Baby” whose strange and cumbersome imagery (“Scroll that’s rolled up and rolled in/ The cocoon-eyed baby’s swollen, clenched hand”) doesn’t add much to the record’s already quite despondent explorations. On top of that, two of the album’s central songs, “Plastic” and “Lonely World,” appear here as re-recorded versions of earlier releases while the three singles were all released long ahead of the record’s debut, thus leaving only two full songs and the largely wordless outro “Self-Help Tape” as genuinely new work. To that end, Aromanticism can feel less like a debut than a compilation of the highest points from his early releases. For new fans, this will likely make the record an excellent entry point, but those who have been eagerly watching Sumney grow into his style may have to wait longer still for him to deliver a record where he can truly stretch his legs and expand his rich and murky palette.