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Moses Sumney has felt like brewing storm for quite some time now. While Aromanticism is his debut full-length, anticipatory whispers have been bubbling under the surface for about four years, since the emergence of his first Soundcloud singles. Without a single album to his name—and not even a Wikipedia page—at the age of 26, he’s shared bills with the likes of St. Vincent, Erykah Badu, Karen O., Dirty Projectors, and Sufjan Stevens. C’mon—the man even shared a post-joint, giggly mirror-selfie musical back-and forth about weed over Nina Simone’s “Where Can I Go Without You” on (Solange’s Instagram.)[https://www.instagram.com/p/BS4Qv0khY_e/?taken-at=326563] It makes sense—anyone who’s listened to Sumney knows it really only takes a song to lure you in deep. With minimal output, his rare vocal talent, art direction, musical inventiveness thus far has made Aromanticism one of the most highly-anticipated albums to come out this year.
But even with all the hype around Sumney, there remains something elusive about him. He’s spent the last three years traveling and writing this record, and while some have been waiting with anticipation for his next move, for others he’s slipped below the radar. If you fall in the latter category—or perhaps just want to delve into old favorites—here’s a crash course in the peak moments of Sumney’s career that put him on the map before Aromanticism to get you in the mood before your record arrives. I’d try to convince you to dive in, but all it takes is one time pressing play before you fall down the Moses Sumney rabbit hole and are a fan for life.
While far from the intricate, looping complex layered harmonies that comprise his later work, his first single “Dwell In The Dark,” released 4 years ago, shares the same intimate draw of all of Sumney’s songs. There’s a innocent simplicity to it: just a wandering melody, Sumney’s intoxicating vocals over air-light, jazzy guitar chords. It’s still Moses Sumney, with all of his class trappings, but a stripped-down version that served as a good entry point for Sumney and a good place to start as a listener.
For lack of better words, Sumney’s first EP was, for many, a holy shit moment. There are good debut EPs, and there are debut EPs that make you stop in your tracks and wonder where this artist’s going to be in 10 years time. Here, and on every subsequent work, both his songwriting and his raw vocal talent feels once-in-a-generation. It’s toe-curling, it’s magic, it’s beautiful. If you think this sounds overstated, it’s not. Go listen to “Plastic” and tell me I’m wrong. Not as loop-heavy or layered as what followed, it’s a perfect look at Sumney’s bare chops before he took his sounds to new heights.
Sumney’s voice is one so unique and striking, it almost feels like it’s a trick—embellished by the magic of production. Which is why it’s even more striking to see this guy live. His performance was easily the best set I saw at Eaux Claires in 2016. Seriously, he exudes light when he performs and is worth going out of your way to see in person. But until you can make it to a live show, this live performance of “Plastic” from Sofar NYC is as gorgeous as it gets. I’m also convinced his performance of “Man on the Moon”—bathed in light and surrounded by lush foliage—for Issue Magazine is the first thing you see when you arrive at the gates of heaven.
“How can I reconcile the seed
Twice sown but never shown in me? … But leave a question
Tucked in my amen:
Will I always be broken?”
Seeds/Pleas, his 2015 two-song release, feels like a necessary precursor to Aromanticism. It’s the bargaining, insecurity, and questioning that comes before the acceptance of a deep exploration. Tracks as easy as breathing, it’s almost unsetting how soothing they feel. Sumney’s lyrical anxiety over the shortcomings of love and romance and its effect on his sense of self seep through and introduce themes further explored on his latest record.
This cover is a close look at his wild ability to build and release tension with perfection, even in a live and improvised setting. His natural intuition toward the kind of lush vocal landscape this becomes is what plays out into mastery in his writing and on his recordings. It’s bone-chilling, and his vocal range is truly unbelievable.
To get a feel for the kind of next-level talent Sumney runs with, and what that kind of cumulative talent is capable of, this video of Solange, Dev Hynes, King, and Sumney rehearsing for their performance at the 2015 FYF music festival. Solange even called the rehearsal a “special moment of solidarity and pride, in celebrating our blackness.”
For an artist that so clearly spends much of his time inside his own head, Sumney avoids being self-indulgent, like the title Lamentations might suggest. Using precise poetry and ruminations, Lametations radiates humanity. “Worth It” is a flooring track you want to sink into, and its video is an spot-on depiction of Sumney’s intimacy that speaks to something larger. Obviously mastering looping and effects on this album, but keeping a firm grasp on his signature dichotomy of musical complexity and simplicity, Sumney gets comfortable into a true electro-soul pioneer on Lamentations.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.