Considering intersections of romance, privilege, and social structures
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.