by A. F. Cannon
Moses Sumney. Photographed by Alexander Black.
‘I insist upon my right to be multiple. Even moreso I insist upon the recognition of my multiplicity.’
- ‘also also also and and and’ by Moses Sumney
To anyone who made the mistake of studying post-war French philosophy — i.e. anything published between Being & Nothingness and Being & Event — Moses Sumney’s new record is going to kick your intellectualising-machines into overdrive. On the ambitious græ, there’s an unmistakably Deleuzean-type thing going on: multiplicity and difference reign supreme, guiding every element of the album. Listen closely, and you’ll learn that identity is a fiction; binaries, a lie; that black and white are illusions in an ocean of grey, a roiling tide bursting in an infinity of shades. Here, the multiple is absolute. Thanks to Moses Sumney, countless college professors can spare their tireless efforts: Difference & Repetition has been transformed from turgid prose into a tight 38 minute phantasy. Finally, Deleuze can be understood without thought.
On græ — Sumney’s follow-up to 2017’s excellent Aromanticism, a record that claimed the last available real estate on the sexual politics property development plan— Deleuze’s logic is present in every thriving moment. Though he falls short of including page references and footnotes, we can’t fail to recognise Sumney’s source material.¹ Keeping with the precedent set by other records from Solange and her inner circle (Dev Hynes’ sibilant nothings, her own A Seat at the Table), relevant political-philosophical points are piped into the soundscape via impassioned dorm-room monologues. The album title alone ought to be direction enough, with its entwined little vowels, but your hair will stand on end as a woman confidently proclaims her multiplicity. Click your fingers, kids, this shit’s got friction. Like other insecure, college-educated artists, Sumney is didactic with his work, and chooses to inscribe the terms of interpretation upon the surface of græ. For all his protestations about identity, Sumney seems anxious to direct our understanding of his record. Because of this, his fascination for multiplicity comes off as both contradictory and hollow.
Like a television tuned to static, endless fluctuation prevails on this record. Paradoxically, this makes its overall effect one of homogeneity. Throughout græ, the chaosmos swarms in technicolour. Up close, this masterful flux works as intended: every moment is nacreous and dazzling, a lambent shimmer of vision. It is a work of extraordinary scope and execution. But as each glimmering second passes into memory, and its tracks join the totality of the past, the record leaves an impression of absolute sameness. First for Deleuze and now for Sumney, being sings with one voice: its univocal cry demands the destruction of categories, the dissolution of borders, the abandonment of all judgements. Creative wilderness must reign free in the world of multiplicity. Yet as we discover on græ, the attempt to abide by this extreme form of freedom immediately delivers us to its limits. Here, there is only the expression of difference. Nothing else is acceptable.
Multiplicity comes with an ethical commitment, and Sumney takes this seriously. As the voice of pure difference, he must always be everything at once, or die. We see his remarkable fidelity to the multiple as he approaches his influences. Throughout græ, Sumney proves himself a prodigious, virtuosic conduit for the voices of his forebears. Unlike less talented artists, though, his purpose is neither evocation nor tribute. He pilfers from the greats strictly to obliterate the human illusions of stability and permanence, revealing the eternal chance of arrival and departure. For Sumney, the only truth is the undying multiplicity of existence, wherein all individuals are ephemeral and prone to replacement. Over surging and delicate compositions, he repeatedly coaxes forth the exalted, the departed, the forgotten, the discarded. Seconds later, a competing voice arrives and blasts them back into the noise of memory. Sumney’s performance on græ reminds us of the impermanence of life — and, more curiously, death. Just as nothing is invulnerable to replacement or destruction, nothing prevents the reappearance of the lost. In the end, both the artist and their work are incarnations of the multiple, which is eternally expressed in a plurality of ways.
If this sounds like it could be a mess, that’s because it is. However, this is unavoidable in the world of the multiple, where a radically different sense of temporality reigns. Sumney is spiritually aligned with artists like Tame Impala and Grimes, for whom the last 70 years of recorded music has collapsed in on itself. Much like Visions and Currents, græ is a monument to the death of linear, historical time. For these artists today, history is not a line but an undulating point: the whole past is contained in the present moment, and ‘now’ is the canvas where we express the combinations of things that existed before. To borrow from Thom Yorke on ‘Idioteque’, we experience today’s now as ‘everything all of the time’. This vision of time and memory is the conceptual undergirding of græ, whose flurry of recollection is simply the apotheosis of this common logic. While Deleuze would endorse this understanding of time, it is not original to his work: rather, today’s capitalism demands this logic of its subjects. With its simultaneous emphasis on nostalgia, novelty, and the recycling of concepts, we see that modern consumerism insists upon the collapse of traditional temporal logic. The repetition of difference and multiplicity in art is simply a representation of capital’s current mode of social power. While Sumney insists on multiplicity, his creative philosophy inadvertently reveals a certain unity: græ expresses nothing but the identity of his artistry with the temporality of late capitalism.
How can we score a record that insists on the collapse of category? Perhaps we can follow its internal logic: by folding extremes inwards, a terrain bearing all possible degrees of quality is produced. At once, it demands that we give it a 10/10, a 0/10 and every point in between. So, like good statisticians of this age of social media — who, more than any artist, harness the multiple in their work — we will take the median of the right-slumped normal distribution to which modern criticism is beholden.
¹ (For those Stalinists of style out there, see chapter 1 of Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia University Press)