Content Warnings: The lyrics of græ include many references to suicide. One song (“Cut Me”) is directly about self-harm. Another (“Two dogs”) describes in graphical detail the traumatic memory of the deaths of two dogs. The cover contains mild nudity. This article will not discuss themes of suicide or self-harm, although it will discuss the dogs.
When Moses Sumney released the album Aromanticism in 2017, it felt shockingly on the nose. I am used to asexual media being extremely rare, something you have to go far out of your way to find. Aromantic media is virtually unheard of, especially the kind that doesn’t reference asexuality. And yet there it was, right in the title of an album being hyped up by mainstream music critics. I didn’t know that was legal, I thought.
Then Moses Sumney released græ, an album that is more restrained from explicit references, but which is even more potent than the last. It is far from clear that Sumney would accept any such label, but I think that people in the greyromantic/ambiguously-aro cluster might feel like Sumney is reading their diaries, and turning them into beautiful and melodramatic poetry.
A cross-section of græ‘s themes can be found in the song “Bystanders“.
Don’t waste your candor
They’ll watch you waste, waste, waste, waste away
What’s the use of confessing the truth
To an executioner in a booth
About the dueling forces in you?
Honesty is the most moral way
But morality is grey
A critic on Pitchfork described this song as “a wry ode to the wisdom of keeping your mouth shut.” But what I saw was a more specific theme: the value of not coming out. The traditional narrative frames coming out as difficult but ultimately necessary for self-actualization. Ace and aro people are familiar with another side of coming out–sometimes it is grating, tedious, and people don’t get what you’re saying anyway. And sometimes we don’t even know what to come out as.
The previous track, “Two Dogs“, offers a poignant example of the dangers of coming out–so devastating that I have to add a strong warning to it. It’s about two dogs who died tragically “in the summer of 2004”. After vividly describing the scene, the singer pulls back, and explains it as a memory triggered by a seemingly innocent question:
But the memory resets
When you ask me in a worried fret
Have you ever at least loved a pet?
Although I interpret these two songs as about coming out, it’s not clear that Sumney would agree. Coming out implies coming out as something, and Sumney seems to prefer avoiding labels. You can see this in the song “Boxes“, as well as in interviews. In an interview with The Independent, Sumney said
I have never identified, publicly or privately, as queer. But I don’t correct people when they say that. I try not to correct people too much these days, because the desire to do so stems from ego. And I realised at some point that proclamations of identification are largely for other people, not for the self. So people can call me whatever they want to call me, if it helps them feel actualised or like they are relating to something they see in themselves. But it’s worth noting that no one has ever been considerate enough to ask me.
So we might proceed with caution–we do not know how the artist would identify, we only know what we ourselves are seeing in the art.
The song “In Bloom” covers another painfully familiar story, the difficulties of non-traditional relationships. It describes an intimate relationship, but there’s a disagreement on the nature of the relationship. The other person doesn’t want a romantic/sexual relationship, and the singer is saying he doesn’t either, but there’s still a disconnect.
You don’t want that, do you?
You just want someone to listen to you
Who ain’t tryna screw you (Ooh, yeah)
I swear I want that too, yeah
I just want someone to listen to me
Who ain’t tryna do me
One of my personal favorites is “Neither/Nor“, which expresses a love for the in between, but also speaks to the experience of erasure:
Is it delusion?
Is it confused?
Is it contusion of a hard-earned truth?
No, it’s nobody
Duality of the self is a pervasive theme throughout the album. One of the problems with expressing yourself to people, is that they only see one side of it, and assume that’s all there is to it. In The Independent, Sumney said:
I boxed myself into a corner with Aromanticism. I got categorised as somebody who hates love, which is not something I ever said.
In this album, it seems like Sumney is trying to show both sides, often in argument with one another. “Conveyor” speaks sinisterly of ants dying “for a chance at the queen”, but in “Gagarin” he reverentially sings “I gave my life to something / Something bigger than me”. “Me in 20 years” expresses uncertainty and sorrow about the future, but the very next song says curiosity about his fate keeps him alive. Which is it? Why not both?
Perhaps the theme of duality is best encapsulated in the opening track “insula“. It contains a spoken-word passage (by Taiye Selasi) explaining the etymology of isolation. Isolation–is that what this record about?
However, toward the end of the album, the same words are recontextualized as coming from a chat with her hairdresser. Perhaps this is just the virus speaking but having a hairdresser to chat with hardly sounds isolated! But the speaker says she has been isolated her whole life, which invites us to examine what isolation really means. The record is about isolation, yes, but it is also about our false expectations when someone says they are isolated, and the further isolation that this generates.