On Wednesday, October 11, Moses Sumney took the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg shortly after 10 p.m. His two band mates, Sam Gendel and Mike Haldeman, were playing the cloudy intro of “Self-Help Tape,” a blend of guitar arpeggios, bass hums, and a world of echo. Sumney descended in a black tunic and black skirt, regal and calmly smiling. He began singing wordless pitches and swoops, looping them with equipment mounted on a chest-high stand. In the middle of this harmonizing, the words “imagine feeling free” were triggered, or whispered. Those words, like any that Sumney sang, came second after the rush of his voice. Without any kind of timekeeping, a few minutes buckled and we were inside his head, full of wind and bright reflections. What sounded vaguely sweet at first became a mammalian cry, a deep keen. And then it was over.
The crowd went bananas, a sign and a validation. Sumney’s debut full-length, Aromanticism, is gentle and intense music, an album of voice and everything that doesn’t interfere with that voice. Sumney has no use for drums, mostly, and leads with a warm falsetto that runs right next to Thom Yorke’s. That voice is his building block, which he turns into choirs with pedals. What is seductive on record becomes a full summoning in person. And Sumney, for all the sacred heat coming off the songs, is a charming and self-possessed master of ceremonies. It has been a long time since I relaxed so quickly at a show, that I got the sense someone didn’t just make a great album but knew how to inhabit himself and keep the crowd in mind. Songs that I was fond of became quick favorites, and moves that felt showy on a recording became irrepressible onstage. Sumney bleeds this stuff, breathes it, gives it.
Sumney began in San Bernardino, California; did a six-year stint in Ghana, where his parents are from; and then returned to California. He’s played guitar in Karen O’s band and performed on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, which is a decent indication of his blast radius, though not of his style. He creates personal music shaved of all sharp points, immersed in emotional candy paint, and reduced on a low flame. It is the ballad as invocation, the quiet storm as safe place, the implicit as explicit. His touchstones — Radiohead, Nina Simone, Prince, jazz fusion, Erykah Badu, Björk — would slow down a lesser talent. Live, a cover of Björk’s “Come to Me” stayed faithful to the song’s original form but tightened the motif, moving the feel from Nineties trip-hop to a cabaret vamp. Sumney didn’t approach it with any of Björk’s vocal colorations, choosing instead to melt the lyric and blend it with his wordless threads. The result sounded like a singer of equal capacity opening up the song rather than worrying about his distance from the original.
Sumney can move through moods quickly and without much fuss. “Make Out in My Car” is a brief for low-impact sexuality: “I’m not trying to go to bed with you, I just wanna make out in my car.” Those are the lyrics, in full. Sumney breaks them up with the Badu sense of loose bump, words falling where they fall, then caught and reshelved at the last second. Playing the song in Williamsburg, Gendel and Haldeman re-created a flute figure heard at the close of the recorded version. Doubling it on sax and guitar, they stuck in tight unison to the line while Sumney conducted the entire phrase with his back to the audience.
Sumney subsumes all these moments into this suspended feeling that is already his own. When he churned up and crested a wave of voices in the middle of “Doomed,” before letting the song sink back to a slow prayer, there was a sense that he was in some new area, a place that was very forgiving of noise and mayhem while seeking lots of familiar harmony. A generation of digitally comfortable musicians with strong traditional performing skills present a real, delightful threat to previous forms. Sumney hasn’t arrived with intentions — he’s arrived with the thing itself.