Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before: Single male, armed with little more than an acoustic guitar, records an album full of ruminating songs about lost love. Several of these songs have vague, almost elemental titles — “Plastic,” “Lonely World,” “Doomed,” “Quarrel,” “Indulge Me.” Others, like “Don’t Bother Calling” or “Make Out in My Car,” sound almost comically melodramatic in comparison. Even the cover image, a headless body floating above the ground, suggests a sort of anonymity, if not literal facelessness. But within seconds of putting this album on, any apprehension about the quality of the musicianship within melts away. You’ll remember those delicate guitar loops, that voice, long after the final song fades into silence: That single male, that headless body, is Moses Sumney, and “Aromanticism,” his first album, deserves to be recognized among 2017’s best.
Last year saw several much-hyped artists finally release their long-awaited debut albums — Sampha’s “Process,” SZA’s “Ctrl” and Kelela’s “Take Me Apart” — to critical acclaim, and it’s quite possible that “Aromanticism” is the finest of them. While those other three albums fall squarely within the bounds of R&B/soul, Sumney’s album is more amorphous. His spare guitar playing, which utilizes strummed chords and delicate arpeggios, is heavily indebted to folk. The production — largely handled by Sumney himself — incorporates elements of electronic and psychedelic music, forming a sonic backdrop that hangs like gossamer. And then there’s Sumney’s voice, which simply has to be heard to be believed. It’s an androgynous croon that most often takes the form of a cracked, soothing falsetto. I can’t help comparing Sumney’s voice to Frank Ocean’s, another instrument of astonishing range and unfailing beauty. (Also like Ocean, Sumney’s music blurs the lines between genres to the point where it defies easy categorization; it’s multiple genres all at once.)
Both Sumney and Ocean alternate between vagueness and directness — sometimes within the same song — when singing about love, although the two approach it from different angles. Ocean sings about unrequited love and lost love; Sumney sings as if he is an outsider to the very notion of romantic love. To put it another way, Ocean sings love songs — love songs that zig when you expect them to zag, but love songs all the same. Sumney does not sing love songs. True to the album’s title, Sumney claims to have never felt romantic love. Which raises the question: Can Sumney sing about lost love even if he’s never felt it to begin with?
Cultures across the world place such an emphasis on being in love — or at least being in a relationship — but throughout “Aromanticism,” Sumney questions the necessity of love even as he buckles under the weight of its absence. “I know what it’s like to behold and not be held,” he purrs on “Plastic,” one of two previously released tracks that were re-recorded for the album. “Plastic” sounds suspended in air; it begins with little more than Sumney singing over a looped guitar riff before passing through a psychedelic cloud of choral vocals and strings and then gracefully descending to the earth.
The other song that appears in a new form here, “Lonely World,” is just as breathtaking as “Plastic” for wholly different reasons. It’s a slow burn of a song that grows from a simple guitar into a dizzying vortex of horns, drums, and bass (the latter provided by musical polyglot Thundercat, who’s recently had a hand in career-defining works by Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus). To listen in to Sumney’s abyss of solitude is to be consumed by it.
The rest of the songs on the album share these lyrical themes, while musically falling somewhere in between. “Quarrel” is another number whose initial broodiness builds to a dramatic climax that matches its heavy lyrical themes; Sumney throws down a gauntlet before a (potential) lover who refuses to treat him as an equal, declaring “we cannot be lovers / Long as I’m the other.” Scattered throughout the album are tunes like “Don’t Bother Calling” and “Indulge Me,” which consist of Sumney singing over his guitar, backed by some other instrumental flourishes; their simplicity takes nothing away from their loveliness. But the album’s finest moment might be its most desolate — “Doomed,” a nearly-a cappella number with some of the album’s most crushing lyrics. Sumney confronts his lack of love, wondering aloud if he is broken and damned by his lack of love. “Am I vital / If my heart is idle?” He asks on the chorus. “Am I doomed?” There’s another couplet shortly after the first chorus — “If lovelessness is godlessness / Will you cast me to the wayside?” — that gets me every time I hear it, and not just because it’s the one line I can sing along to without crashing and burning.
If there’s any fault to find with this album, it’s in its slightness. Three of the 11 songs are interludes, and closer “Self-Help Tape” is practically an instrumental. Even though “Aromanticism” is over and out in little more than half an hour, it’ll stick with you for a lot longer than that. This isn’t an album so much as it’s a little world unto itself, rich with introspection and melancholy and beauty, and it’s a testament to Sumney’s musicianship that his lonely world sounds so inviting.
Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.