If hard work is the key to success, then patience is the carabiner that keeps it from being misplaced along the way. It’s about bolstering passion when it flows through you, then breathing deeply and evenly so as to not misrepresent it, taking your time with what at one point felt urgent and immediate. When an artist can be an editor as well as a creator, they know how to shave their piece and fine-tune its inner workings until it stands as a piece of art as well as a message too deep to be encapsulated. The same could be said of love. It’s a harrowing trajectory to find a partner and then to keep them, and on his debut album, Aromanticism, electro-soul singer-songwriter Moses Sumney manages to find the perfect intersection of such. Like a hyper-layered painting that’s simultaneously subdued or a thin piece of literature whose words puncture your heart, Aromanticism overwhelms with its ability to put weary emotions into words and then wring emotion from them once again.
To be fair, Sumney’s ability to create an album such as this one was to be expected. The Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist has been stunning audiences for years. His early days of singing in coffee shops in 2014 paved the way for word-of-mouth fanfare, eventually earning him spots singing behind Sufjan Stevens and Solange. Yet, while his blend of electro-soul, bare-bones folk, and groove-driven minimalism never fails to impress live, he seems hard-pressed to settle on recorded versions. He’s spent nearly four years deciding what Aromanticism should comprise, and during that time, it seems he’s been hounding himself to figure out what he should comprise, too. In a lengthy prose-poem essay he wrote about the LP, Sumney recounts various mythological scriptures that harp on the dependency of romantic love — most notably when Zeus slices humans, once four-legged creatures, in half so that their heads face inward to measure the absence of their other half. In Sumney’s eyes, the issue isn’t if romantic love is fulfilling. It’s if romantic love is essential — and on Aromanticism, he builds an entire dreamlike world that illustrates what it’s like to live without it.
The world of an aromantic is a world of beauty, shadows, and wonder. More than ever before, Sumney wields his voice to let listeners into his mind. It’s a soulful voice dipping into the register of a whisper to turn intimacy into an option. Lyrically, he uses Aromanticism as a space to challenge the idea that finding a soulmate is the ultimate goal. It’s there in “Doomed”, where Sumney questions fulfillment, lovelessness, and his own existence because of love’s sheer, crushing magnitude as a type of definition. On “The Cocoon-Eyed Baby”, Sumney pens the tale of a child who screams in protest of love as unwritten law, only to learn the impulse to deny it must be suppressed. From the clear-cut metaphor of plastic wings he hides in secret to the gutting “Thank you” his mother sighs inside of their second-hand Mitsubishi caravan after he says “I love you,” Aromanticism is filled with striking visuals concerning freedom, gratitude, and relationships. The album is riddled with doubt and uncertainty, which Sumney welcomes on “Self-Help Tape” with a barebone sentiment: “Imagine being free/ Imagine tasting free/ Imagine feeling free/ Imagine feeling.” Sumney has the uncanny ability to turn ink into scripture with his voice, offering solace even when he’s unsure, so that open-endedness becomes a blanket of sorts.
Sumney explores the topic through collaboration. He threads Aromanticism with choir-inspired vocal layering, a tonal choice that articulates the notion that a single person contains multiplicities, and they tame those multiplicities so as to carry on throughout life. A tide of artists — Matt Otto of Majical Cloudz, Thundercat, Paris Strother of KING, Ian Chang of Son Lux, Nicole Miglis of Hundred Waters, Cam Obi, and so on — roll into the songs and then drift back out. Their voices merge with Sumney’s. Thundercat’s bass gels seamlessly next to his piano. Miglis uses flute to soften his words in “Make Out in My Car”. It’s a natural existence meant to normalize the internal conflict of an aromantic, someone who doesn’t completely feel romantic attraction but still craves attention despite that.
While he toils through thought and lived experience, Sumney uses his skills as a songwriter to craft his finest musical pieces to date. Older numbers like “Plastic” and “Lonely World” appear in new form, the latter making phenomenal use of looping and rhythm. But it’s the exploratory newcomers that show off Sumney’s skills. Beautiful guitar strums cushion “Indulge Me” so that Sumney’s multi-tracked vocal sighs come off reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Reckoner” or “Give Up the Ghost”, giving the listener the sensation of floating. Then there are numbers like “Quarrel”, which trek down rich tapestried walls, where an upright bass can hum beside electronic keys, tepid horns, and delicate harp tremolos. Aromanticism is as much an album about inner ruminations as it is about external textures, and Sumney uses the space to flex his skills as a lyricist and composer.
All of this adds up. Like Jenny Hval’s Blood Bitch, Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me, and other concept albums, Aromanticism can be a lot to digest. That’s a given with lyrically and compositionally dense records like his. Because he took three years to present his proper full-length introduction, Moses Sumney can deliver both a question and a solution — a reminder that romantic love is only a self-prescribed path if we abide by society’s literature — for listeners to toy with. It requires multiple listens. In turn, that helps the listener grow, revealing spaces where their own narrative and experiences can intertwine with his — not in a romantic sense, but in an educational sense. As a result, Aromanticism already has become and promises to remain one of the most emotionally therapeutic albums of the year.
Essential Tracks: “Indulge Me”, “Lonely World”, and “Doomed”