Last night, Moses Sumney emerged through a blue-filtered haze of dry ice like an alien landing on Earth. The extraordinary sounds that emanated from him were pretty alien too: a falsetto wail here, a dizzying operatic vibrato there. It was as if Nina Simone was having a party in a Sixties-imagined future version of life on the Moon.
Sumney, a towering Californian who spent much of his early life in Ghana has, over the past few years, been crafting a sound like no other. This has found its centre of gravity in Aromanticism, a new album about his failure to feel romantic attraction. Much of this work – simultaneously giddy and melancholy with an ambitious, enigmatic sound that can best be described as ambient soul – was aired in a show that slightly defied expectation.
I say this because, while Aromanticism is often very beautiful, it doesn’t offer much in the way of diversity. This may sound odd given that Sumner’s vocal pyrotechnics recall so many artists – Prince, Donna Summer, David Bowie, Shirley Bassey, the cello in human form – that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. Yet listening to the album intently means that everything is filtered into his unique vision. Moses Sumney as a live artist is more raw, more biting, more fun.
And so at a packed Islington Assembly Hall, we had the added bonus of Sumner’s imposing, playful personality. “Is anyone here from Brixton?” he asked in his slightly kooky drawl. “Yay,” came the weedy reply from a few of the crowd (me included). “You don’t sound like you are,” he said. “You’re so… soft.”
Such moments made the audience (a diverse mixture of Hoxton horrors, ageing musos and a man carrying a sustainable bag from the Hereford Cider Museum) fall in love with Sumney a little more, but naturally the biggest thrill came from the music that, outside of the studio, has a particularly volatile kind of energy. For example, in Lonely World, what started as a disturbing primal scream offset by playful jazz interludes, transformed into an exhilarating burst of Moroder-style disco.
Indeed, Sumney often seemed to be rolling several songs into one (he managed to achieve this last night in the cover of Björk’s Come to Me). Occasionally, this swift transition of musical form can grate (as it always does – remember arch offenders Muse?), but there is a certain clarity in Sumney’s delivery that saves it from self-indulgence.
Ultimately, I couldn't help feeling that, despite a full-blooded performance, what we saw was just an amuse bouche to a weird and rather wonderful career. Moses Sumney is only just beginning.