Moses Sumney, “Lonely World”
written by Gabe Gordon
When I look back at my relationship with Moses Sumney’s music, I land on three moments: I listened through his debut LP Aromanticism in September 2017; two months before that I saw him live for the first time; and two years before that I was introduced to his recorded music. In the middle of this timeline my partner Claire Randall was killed. All three of those moments are intimately tied to Claire. And so on top of being struck by his stratospheric talent, Moses’ art holds me in a tremendous grip. His song “Lonely World” in particular has this effect – I become entangled in two opposite states, feeling painfully close to Claire but also strangely far away from her.
“Lonely World” is a compound of Moses’ most stunning musical elements. The track fuses brooding guitar, ethereal sweeps, and pounding drums. He sends forth waves of vocals, moving from fragile to sky-opening. The narrative unfolds organically and crescendos to revelatory heights. Moses’ lyrics are both fraught with and fascinated by loneliness; “the sound of the void” he sighs, “flows through your body, undestroyed.” In the context of grief and loss, Moses’ words honor my experienced duality of holding Claire close while navigating life without her.
Nowadays when I listen to a song, I wonder if Claire would be into it. Our musical tastes often aligned, and we pointed to a similar handful of artists whose work had dramatically shaped our own music-making. There’s no doubt in my mind that Claire would have found Aromanticism as transformative as I do. To me, Moses and Claire’s art are uncannily akin – both poised and dynamic, grounded and otherworldly. And it’s fitting that we “discovered” Moses’ music thanks to another one of those life-changing artists. Two years ago, Nai Palm (of the band Hiatus Kaiyote) gave a shout-out to Moses and his earlier studio version of “Lonely World”. Claire and I immediately gravitated toward it. With Nai’s seal of approval, we figured that Moses would go on to be a special force in our shared musical world.
It took me weeks after Claire’s death to try listening to music again. As I was able to find moments of comfort and closeness in music, I turned to the hurdle of going to live shows. What I feared most was the emotional punch of sound in space: bass notes rumbling up through my feet; guitar strums raising my hair like a distant relative of trauma; some voice other than Claire’s crooning at my ears and my heart.
In the summer of 2017 Moses made the lineup of Celebrate Brooklyn (an annual festival held in Prospect Park). I considered going, but there were a lot of challenges stacked against me: the venue is steeped in memories, as Claire and I often went to the festival together; it’s a crowded and lively scene, which I had been shying away from; plus I was nervous about that live music punch. Still, I followed my gut and went anyway with some friends.
It was a beautiful summer evening – warm with a refreshing breeze. Thanks to a friend we were able to move up into the front section, just feet from the stage. The band came on and the Bandshell glowed a deep blue, eclipsing the players into silhouettes. Applause scattered across the lawn where friends and families picnicked in the dark. The audience was a hive; people milled from food vendors to their seats, from conversation to conversation. Everyone was alive and breathing in that summer air – except for Claire.
As Moses looped precious falsettos over each other, I fell into that “tunnel vision” feeling where the crowd fades and it’s just you and the artist…except it’s not just me and Moses. Claire’s there too – her hands on her face, mouth agape, eyebrows wrenched in awe. I’ve seen her eyes light up like this on rare occasions (like when we saw Nai Palm perform an intimate, life-affirming show the summer before Claire’s death). I squeeze her hand to let her know I’m blown away too. But as Moses’ one-man choir washes over me I remember that Claire isn’t at this show. It’s like I’ve been throttled lightyears ahead. Here I am, enthralled by live music that feels like “ours”, but without her there to feel the same.
Closing the set, Moses and his band swell into the restless intro of “Lonely World”. I find myself rising up and out of our atmosphere. All around me the song radiates Claire. Looking down below, she stands watching the same show but on some distant plane. Her figure fades from view as I ascend up and up. Launching into a climactic breakdown, Moses cries a piercing cadence: “Lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely…”
Gabe Gordon is an arts administrator, creative community member, and Senior Program Associate for RMI. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with family, friends, and his two cats.
Alexis Gallo is a multidisciplinary designer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. See more of her work at www.alexisgallo.com.