Ex­plor­ing Aro­man­ti­cism

Con­sid­er­ing in­ter­sec­tions of ro­mance, priv­i­lege, and so­cial struc­tures

The McGill Daily - - Culture - Caro­line Macari The Mcgill Daily

Moses Sum­ney re­leased his de­but al­bum, Aro­man­ti­cism, last week. Sum­ney is based in Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia, where he grad­u­ated from U.C.L.A, and soon af­ter started a month­long res­i­dency at the Boot­leg Theatre open­ing for KING, an R&B trio. This res­i­dency kick- started a string of on­go­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties: Sum­ney then went on to open for Suf­jan Stevens and James Blake on tour, and be­gan a close friend­ship with Solange that spurred sev­eral col­lab­o­ra­tions. Over the last three years, Sum­ney re­leased a se­ries of EPS while his fan­base and their an­tic­i­pa­tion swelled. Brief but dense, Sum­ney’s de­but record spans 11 tracks across just over thirty min­utes, each writ­ten, sung, and pro­duced by him.

Aro­man­ti­cism is a con­cept al­bum—it is con­tem­pla­tive, crit­i­cal, and fo­cused. Be­fore the re­lease, Sum­ney shared an es­say on his so­cial me­dia de­tail­ing his thoughts be­hind the record. He claims, “many of the ori­gin sto­ries about the in­cep­tion of our species es­tab­lish this blue­print for co­ex­is­tence—that ev­ery­body has an equal and op­po­site body, a des­tined com­pan­ion with­out which we are in­com­plete. Our mod­ern con­struct of ro­mance still up­holds this par­a­digm; ro­man­tic love is the para­mount prize of ex­is­tence. But what if I can’t ac­cess that prize?” With this ques­tion in mind, Sum­ney seeks to in­ter­ro­gate our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion, ob­ses­sion, and yearn­ing for ro­man­tic love, and con­sider in­stead love’s other pos­si­bil­i­ties. He won­ders “how priv­i­leged peo­ple can feel love in­ter­per­son­ally but still ad­here to sys­tems of so­cial hi­er­ar­chy that cause them to treat oth­ered groups with love­less in­dif­fer­ence.” He en­gages with the gritty side of love and ro­mance—who has ac­cess to it? How do struc­tures of op­pres­sion, op­er­a­tions of priv­i­lege, and per­sonal feel­ings in­ter­sect, and how does one love in the space where th­ese forces meet?

The al­bum be­gins with an in­stru­men­tal reprise of one of Sum­ney’s first sin­gles from his 2014 Mid City Is­land EP, “Man on the Moon.” It takes har­monies from the orig­i­nal track, which are un­fa­mil­iar with­out the song’s ti­tle. The fol­low­ing track sets the tone for the rest of the al­bum: “Don’t Bother Call­ing” in­cor­po­rates lush gui­tars and smooth har­monies to ex­press Sum­ney’s in­se­cu­ri­ties in ro­mance, singing “You need a solid / But I’m made of liq­uid… I don’t know what we are / But all I know is I can’t go away with you with half a heart.” Af­ter the mu­sic fades away, we hear a faint, pri­vate mo­ment, where Sum­ney voices, “well, I tried.”

This mind­set seeps into his next track, a re­vamped ver­sion of one of his first sin­gles, “Plas­tic,” which em­pha­sizes vul­ner­a­bil­ity more than in­se­cu­rity. “I know what it is to be bro­ken and be bold . . . I know what it’s like to be­hold and not be held,” Sum­ney croons. He con­veys a per­sonal in­tri­cacy and self-aware­ness that should not be mis­taken with fragility, whispering in the cho­rus, “my wings are made of plas­tic.”

Aro­man­ti­cism pur­sues a con­cept in nar­ra­tive form. Sum­ney be­gins by draw­ing the lis­tener into his men­tal space with se­quences of har­monies, then re­veals his po­si­tion as a ro­man­tic sub­ject. It is a po­si­tion fraught with vul­ner­a­bil­ity, walls, and feel­ings of non- be­long­ing. In “Quar­rel,” he sug­gests this feel­ing of non- be­long­ing by call­ing out the dif­fer­ing sub­ject po­si­tions that in­flu­ence or cre­ate power dy­nam­ics, which per­vade even in­ter­per­sonal ro­mance. If two in­di­vid­u­als come from dif­fer­ing flows of iden­tity, then is the part­ner­ship equal? “Call­ing this a quar­rel isn’t right / quot­ing this a quar­rel / so im­morally im­plies / we’re equal op­po­nents . . . we can­not be lovers / long as I’m the other,” he sings.

The al­bum’s cli­max is “Lonely World,” which per­fectly cap­tures Sum­ney’s idio­syn­cratic sound. It’s pref­aced by a spo­ken word in­ter­lude, “Sto­icism,” in which he re­counts telling his mom that he loved her as they drove in her old car­a­van, and she sim­ply replied “thank you.” Per­haps this ex­pe­ri­ence of fa­mil­ial love mim­ics ex­pe­ri­ences in ro­mance when there is not an equal give and take, where one party does not re­ceive ful­fill­ment or recog­ni­tion for the love and labour they pour in. Giv­ing more than you re­ceive, or giv­ing more than de­served, can be iso­lat­ing for the one lov­ing. “Lonely World” delves into th­ese feel­ings of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness to an al­most dizzy­ing ex­tent. Af­ter the first quiet verse, the phrase “lonely world” is looped sev­eral times, each time adding more har­monies and in­stru­ments un­til it be­comes over­whelm­ing, just as lonely thoughts can be. “Af­ter all the laugh­ter, empti­ness pre­vails / Born into this world with no con­sent or choice / lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,” Sum­ney ut­ters th­ese words in dif­fer­ent pitches but in the same tone of dread­ful long­ing. The song’s di­verse in­stru­men­ta­tion and heavy force brings the lis­tener to a pal­pa­ble point of con­fronta­tion. When does the lone­li­ness end? Does it?

“Make Out in My Car” pro­vides some sort of re­sponse, but not nec­es­sar­ily an an­swer. The song re­peats, “I’m not tryna go to bed with ya / I just wanna make out in my car.” Sum­ney looks not for ro­mance or even sex, but just some­thing that is not iso­lat­ing. He takes this a step fur­ther in “Doomed,” which he de­scribes as the al­bum’s the­sis state­ment. The song is haunt­ing, slow, and in­tro­spec­tive. Sum­ney seems to find some kind of sad re­solve af­ter re­peat­edly ask­ing: “Am I vi­tal / If my heart is idle? Am I doomed?” He later ex­pands on the ques­tion, won­der­ing, “If love­less­ness is god­less­ness, will you cast me to the way­side?” The depth of th­ese ques­tions digs be­yond self-worth, and they in­stead con­tem­plate where pur­pose lies if not at­tached to, set­tled in, or driven by pur­suit of love.

“In­dulge Me” is the record’s fi­nal lyri­cal piece. It is slow and me­an­ders through all of the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, hurt, and melan­choly ex­plored pre­vi­ously on the record. “No­body trou­bles my body af­ter / All my old oth­ers have found lovers / In­dulge me / In­dulge me,” Sum­ney sings. It is hard to tell if he has an­swered his big ques­tions, but his pleas for another to in­dulge his lone­li­ness err to­wards an aus­tere melan­choly. He pol­ishes off the record with “Self- Help Tape,” which sounds lighter than the rest of the al­bum. A ca­coph­ony of an­gelic har­monies make sounds but not words, and as a pul­sat­ing swirl of gui­tar strums brings the har­monies to a close, Sum­ney whis­pers, “imag­ine be­ing free / imag­ine tast­ing free / imag­ine feel­ing free / imag­ine feel­ing.” It is hon­est. It shows the con­straints of be­ing a hu­man crav­ing love, and be­ing a per­son weighted by op­pres­sive struc­tures that claim ro­man­tic love to be a uni­ver­sal feel­ing.

In his es­say, Sum­ney notes that the “no­tyet dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion of ‘aro­man­tic’ is some­one who doesn’t ex­pe­ri­ence ro­man­tic love, or does to a di­min­ished, ab­nor­mal de­gree.” He ex­plores this con­cept with soul­ful words and so­phis­ti­cated sound. He ref­er­ences an in­abil­ity to feel in­vested in ro­man­tic love, but nev­er­the­less is able to ex­pe­ri­ence ro­man­tic thoughts and crave another. He desta­bi­lizes the no­tion that ro­man­tic love is in­her­ent in each of us, and in­stead pro­poses that we are con­di­tioned to love, though face bar­ri­ers to this con­di­tioned pur­suit of ro­mance. The al­bum “seeks to in­ter­ro­gate the idea that ro­mance is nor­ma­tive and nec­es­sary.” Seem­ingly still in search of an­swers, Sum­ney dis­tills ideas of his per­sonal iden­tity and his in­ter­ac­tions with the struc­tures of the world around him. He notes that th­ese struc­tures can be op­pres­sive and per­va­sive even in love, de­spite it feel­ing so per­sonal and sep­a­rate–but is it re­ally?

“Our mod­ern con­struct of ro­mance still up­holds this par­a­digm [that ev­ery­body has an equal and op­po­site body]; ro­man­tic love is the para­mount prize of ex­is­tence. But what if I can’t ac­cess that prize?” —Moses Sum­ney

“Lonely, lonely, lonely,” Sum­ney ut­ters th­ese words in dif­fer­ent pitches but in the same tone of dread­ful long­ing.

Im­age Courtesy of Jag­jaguwar Records

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