Moses Sumney makes protest music—just not in the way you think. He’s not singing about politics or progressive causes; he’s challenging the conventions of modern love while carrying the weight of his prolonged lovelessness and diminishing self-worth. On his sophomore effort, grae: Part 1, released on February 21, the 28-year-old singer rejects gender conformity and questions the effects of his masculinity in his relationships.
Sumney embeds loneliness in his music. His debut album, 2017’s Aromanticism, was somber, pensive, and quietly beautiful. It succeeded at conveying Sumney’s feelings of lovelessness with the help of ethereal instrumentals that exposed the hollow core of his emotions. Despite it being dark by nature, the album never quite delves into self-pity. Aromanticism’s closing track, “Self-Help Tape,” actually ends on a somewhat lighter note, with Sumney asking the listener to “Imagine being free.”
More than two years separate the release of his full-length albums, and in that time, it seems like Sumney is ready to love again, albeit with caveats. He still craves the pain love brings him, as is apparent on grae’s second track, “Cut Me,” where he sings, “When my mind’s clouded and filled with doubt / That’s when I feel the most alive / Masochistic kisses are how I thrive.”
Coming to terms with his newfound willingness to love, Sumney spends the rest of the album trying to learn his place in a potential relationship. In traditional relationships, men are the leaders. They’re the ones who provide for their significant other. They’re the strong ones—the ones who don’t show emotion in a time of conflict. The view of relationships is archaic, but Sumney is valiantly trying to dispel the preordained norms of masculinity within them.
On “Virile,” the Californian trades in his usual skeletal instrumentals backed by silky strings and opulent vocal harmonies in exchange for a brash, grand orchestral beat that feels like the anti-Moses Sumney song. This approach is by design as the lyrics express Sumney’s contempt for stereotypical masculinity. “Desperate for passing grades / The virility fades / you’ve got the wrong guy,” he sings on the chorus. The track explores how men view masculinity from a young age—they see their role models act like the stereotypical man and try to emulate it.
The following track, “Conveyor,” expresses the same idea through the imagery of insects. Sumney uses fire ants and bees as examples of male insects that die every day to please their queen. He compares this to the school system and how it prepared him for the workforce and traditional marriage by merely encouraging him to adhere to the standards and norms from previous generations. In both cases, the males hop on the metaphorical conveyor belt to follow the path laid out for them.
“Conveyor” leads into the interlude “boxes,” in which the album’s narrator explains the consequences of creating boxes to put people in. She also claims that the best way to rid ourselves of these generic identities is to rewrite them to make them unique.
Sumney scatters his emotions across grae. However, the interludes offer a different viewpoint. The narrator argues that one person isn’t restricted to being just one thing, such as on “also also also and and and.” She argues her multiplicity allows her to be many different things at once—without being pigeonholed into a one-note caricature of a human being. “boxes” goes even further, explaining how Black women and men must rewrite the definitions given to them because the original ones don’t allow them to be anything more than the color of their skin.
It may seem that Sumney is trying to reverse-engineer masculinity, but the interludes impose conflict as they prove individuality isn’t a pre-written notion. By definition, individuality will change from person to person, and Sumney understands that, though he hasn’t quite figured himself out yet.
Not every song on grae is a blunt rejection of masculinity. In fact, Sumney inhibits some negative male tendencies on the track “Colouour,” asking his lover to wear some more color, specifically colors of Earth, as they claim they long for death. He then rejects his lover’s accusation that he makes these suggestions as part of a plan to change them.
Though he does fall in the trap of toxic masculinity, Sumney attempts to fight it on “In Bloom.” He sings about a woman who sees him only as a close friend to whom she can speak about her problems. Instead of expressing resentment to a woman who wants nothing sexual or romantic to do with him, he solemnly accepts his role as platonic companion.
Sumney desperately wants to love and to be loved. He craves it like an addict longs for a re-up. He doesn’t care if it makes him feel terrible, either. “Polly” expresses Sumney’s mixed feelings towards polygamous relationships and the pain that comes with being the paramour. He questions whether he is an essential person to his lover or if he’s just another guy who exists solely for sex.
The thesis of Aromanticism is intrinsically linked to grae. Though they sound different and explore different themes overall, their shared sentiment of loneliness bleeds through on both albums. grae isn’t even finished, as the second part of the album is slated to release in May. However, Sumney has already released a song from the latter half in the shape of “Me in 20 Years.” The track is a sad reflection on Sumney’s romantic life far in the future. He still envisions being by himself as his prediction implies he never truly finds love the way he wanted to. The track closes with him asking if his loneliness is “laced within [his] DNA,” to which he has no answer—only a simple request to ask him again in 20 years.
grae is a sincere and serene project, one that asks questions but doesn’t care to answer them. Not because Sumney doesn’t want to, but because he can’t. His music is an invitation to ponder individuality alongside him, not a guaranteed guide to rid oneself of loneliness.
The world’s view of masculinity is antiquated. It worked in the past where any divergence from classic masculinity would lead to severe punishment, but things are different now. Men don’t have to be hyper-masculine to be men. Men can embrace feminine characteristics and still be men. Masculinity is nuanced, and Sumney knows this. There’s no black and white in his world; he exists somewhere in the middle—somewhere in the grae area.