Album Review of "Aromanticism" by Moses Sumney


Rejecting Romance:
Finding freedom in solitude

This album's theme is definitely out of the ordinary. In a society that glories romantic love, being alone is seen as failure. But for electro-soul artist Moses Sumney, solitude is a pathway to authenticity.

Genre: Electro-Soul

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Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Aromanticism by Moses Sumney

Learn more about Moses Sumney, listen to Aromanticism, and read additional reviews.

Listen to Aromanticism

Album Review: Aromanticism by Moses Sumney
Finding Freedom in Solitude

This is a transcript of Ep. 11 of the What's This Album About? podcast - listen here

Hi, everyone. I’m Bobby Waller. When I’m looking for an album to analyze on What’s This Album About?, I have a few criteria in mind. It’s got to be new, and it’s got to have well-crafted words—preferably with a consistent message or central theme—and not just any central message or theme but, hopefully, something interesting—something not everyone is talking about.

That’s why on this episode of What’s This Album About?, we look at Moses Sumney’s debut full-length album, Aromantiscism. It’s central theme is definitely out of the ordinary.

The album begins with the short wordless piece you’re hearing right now—“Man on the Moon (Reprise).”  There‘s no instrumental accompaniment, and all the voices are Sumney’s. He’s harmonizing with himself—which is intentional, I’m sure, because, as the album unfolds, we realize that this theme of being unaccompanied is pretty important.

The video for “Man on the Moon (Reprise)” is a single, underwater close-up of Sumney’s face penetrating the surface of some still, dark, black water. It’s a trick shot though, because the image has been positioned upside down on the screen, making it look like Sumney is reclining, face up, his eyes, nose, and mouth still barely above the water. As the shot continues, Sumney’s features slowly submerge (from our perspective, that is) until Sumney is out of view, alone, and isolated—like a man on the moon.

Of course, the theme of being alone is, in and of itself, not uncommon in lyrics. We find it in this Gilbert O’Sullivan song, for example….

        ♪  Alone again, naturally this Eric Carmen song…

        ♪  All by myself

…and in a literally infinite number of breakup songs that are out there.

But Sumney approaches the subject of aloneness differently than those other songs. Those other songs depict romantic coupling as normative and desirable while aloneness is the lamentable result of a romantic failure. “I’m alone because I screwed up.” By contrast, Sumney see things the other way around. Romantic coupling is a mistake, and aloneness is desirable. Sumney is not romantic. He’s actually against romantic coupling, at least for himself. And in a music industry that fetishizes romantic love to an almost absurd degree, that’s a message you don’t hear every day. 

One of the most impressive aspects of the messaging of Aromanticism is the thematic continuity that runs not only throughout Sumney’s songs but also throughout the videos that were created in support of this album. Like the video for “Man on the Moon (Reprise)”—which we just discussed—the  video for Track 9, “Doomed," centers on an image of immersion in water. We see Sumney completely submerged in a glass tank of blue-green water, surrounded by darkness. The camera slowly circles the tank, staying focused on Sumney in close-up while he lip-synchs the song’s lyrics. Let’s listen to the chorus:

        ♪  Am I vital
              If my heart is idle?
              Am I doomed?

As you can hear, Sumney has a highly stylized falsetto voice, which he wields like an instrument. His lyrics nearly disappear in the pure musicality of his tone, but here’s what he’s saying: “Am I vital if my heart is idle? Am I doomed?” In other words, can you see me as vital even if I don’t engage in the affairs of the heart? Will you acknowledge me as a fully functional human being? Or will you see me as doomed, hopeless, a lost case?

Elsewhere in the song, he sings,…

        ♪  If lovelessness is godlessness, will you cast me to the wayside?
             Am I not still human even though I don’t love the way you love?

Toward the end of the “Doomed” video, the camera finally pans away from Sumney, across a short span of darkness to another tank, where we see a woman fully submerged, looking toward Sumney with her hand outstretched longingly. In the final shot, the camera slowly pulls out to reveal that Sumney’s tank is only one in a seemingly infinite regression of orb-shaped tanks, all suspended in the darkness, their inhabitants facing different directions, awkwardly disconnected from those around them.

        ♪  Am I vital
             If my heart is idle?
             Am I doomed? 

The reasons Sumney states for his aromantic position occur throughout Aromanticism. In Track 10, “Indulge Me,” he sings…

        ♪  I don’t trouble nobody, and nobody troubles my body.

The problem with romantic love is that it leads to trouble. And in Track 2, “Don’t Bother Calling,” he sings…

        ♪  Don’t bother calling. I’ll call you

So romantic love is trouble. It’s a bother. It’s more hassle than it’s worth because it leads to drama and entanglements that Sumney feels he’d be better off without.

In Track 4, “Quarrel,” he further explains,…

        ♪  We could not be lovers, ‘cause I am the other.

In philosophy otherness is the characteristic of being wholly unlike oneself—and not in complementary way. One identifies oneself as good and normal as compared to the other, which, by contrast, is wrong and aberrant. Sumney points out that when such a contrast exists, there can be no real love.

        ♪  Lonely, lonely, lonely. lonely, lonely  world…

It’s a point he drives home in the last of the videos we’ll consider in this episode of What’s This Album About?—the video for Track 6 “Lonely World.” It’s another slow-paced, water-themed video, only this time, Sumney is on land, walking on a desolate beach, when he saves the life of a mermaid-like creature he finds washed up on the rocks. She’s topless, but she has no nipples. Her bottom half looks not like the usual scaly mermaid’s tail but like to human legs that have been fused together. To put it bluntly, she has no sex parts. Symbolically speaking, Sumney does not see her as a sexual prospect. Even so, she tries to seduce him. He resists her advances, but she refuses to be thwarted and, in the end, kills him, even though he just saved her life.

This is how Sumney sees romance. It’s destructive. One partner wants one thing. The other wants something else. And when needs aren’t met, lovers strike back. It gets ugly and complicated and sometimes violent. It’s much more bother than it’s worth.

And here’s where I feel I should interject a side note. I suspect some of us may be thinking, “I can’t relate to that message at all. I like sex. I like my partner.” And I get it because I had those thoughts, too. I’ve been married to the same woman for twenty-one years, and that marriage has benefited me in ways I can’t begin to explain. Nonetheless, I think there’s a broadness in Sumney’s message that makes it applicable to even to people like me.

At the risk of oversharing, I can definitely say that, although I find my marriage to be indescribably beneficial, there have been rocky times caused largely by me over-relying on romantic attachment. ‘We’ll always be together, right? Nothing to work on here.’ And the ticket out of those rocky times was going inward, by myself, and finding out who I really am and what I really want. So, even in a pretty darned successful romantic relationship, a little aromanticism—a little striking out on your own—can be helpful sometimes.

Another thing I like about Sumney’s message in Aromanticism is that it supports a counter-aesthetic to the music industry’s sometimes stifling romantic bias. At any given time, more than half the songs on the pop charts are about romantic love, or at least sex. The bias is so strong that whenever we hear the word “you” in a pop song, our default interpretation is that it refers to a romantic love interest, even when that’s not the case. Take this song, for example:

        ♪  And you light up my life
              You give me hope
              To carry on…

This is Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.” Back when it was a hit, the girls in my school would hold their hairbrushes like microphones and sing it to one another with exaggerated lust. I found this all very titillating, that is until Boone revealed that she had recorded “You Light up My Life” as an homage to Jesus.

And then I didn’t know how to feel about it. In the religious tradition I grew up in, Jesus and titillation were not supposed to go together at all. I felt confused—and maybe even a little manipulated.

As an adult, however, I’m willing to cut Boone some slack because she’s not the one who created the music industry’s over-the-top romantic bias. She’s just working within its parameters—which I get because, as odd as it may seem, I sometimes find myself writing songs about romantic love that I don’t really mean, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re a songwriter, right?

        ♪ Don’t bother calling, I’ll call you

Moses Sumney’s answer to that question is, not necessarily. He has stated in interviews that romantic coupling is something that has never appealed to him, and he asks, If that’s the case, why give in to other people’s norms? Why not break free from convention and find your own voice?

For Moses Sumney, the ultimate goal of aromanticism is not simply to separate ourselves from others; it’s to find freedom. And I dare say that, whether or not we choose to forego romantic coupling, turning inward and getting comfortable with aloneness is almost always part of that self-liberation process. Living authentically, by definition, requires us to put aside artificially imposed ideas about what’s right and wrong. Because when we free ourselves from tired notions of who we ought to be, we free ourselves to find out who we really are.

        ♪  I’m not a body. The body is but a shell
              I’m disembodied, but suffering is suffering

Thanks for listening to What’s This Album About?, the podcast that dives deep into the lyrics of today’s best songwriters. If you wish us well in what we’re doing, here’s a free and easy way you can give us a helping hand. Just go to iTunes and write us a quick review. Tune in next time when we review British avant-garde songwriter Benjamin Clementine’s I Tell a Fly.

Until then, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to live authentically and keep your ears open because

the more you listen, the more you love.