The release of Sinner reads less like an album rollout than the plot of a monster movie. Something was announced online last year; something was being given out at a barbecue in Detroit; something was made available in a few record shops; Moodymann gave something away to his fans, and it’s not entirely clear that Sinner even is that something. The vinyl version is a five-track EP, and though the digital version has been widely reported as containing seven, two more are available if you buy it on Bandcamp, totaling about 55 minutes of music. Maybe the “real” album’s on the horizon, but for now, here’s what we know: there are nine tracks, they exist, the world’s better for it.
Why such uncertainty? Maybe it’s skepticism towards the rockist cult of the album in the track-centric world of dance music. Maybe this is the Detroit DJ’s answer to Prince’s Black Album, another album that’s only sorta been released, with which it shares a dominatrix-black cover and a fascination with freaky sex (“I Think of Saturday” even whips out a LinnDrum, just like the Purple One’s). But Moodymann has always been mischievous, and besides, this release strategy suits his most misanthropic album yet. The Moodymann we hear on Drake’s “Passionfruit” entreating everyone to get another drink is absent. Here is a man who thrives behind smoke and closed doors.
There’s always been something wrong about Moodymann’s music, and never have I been more acutely aware of that quality than upon listening to Sinner. The bass plays notes contradictory to the rest of the music. The vocal samples don’t even try to stay in key. There’s always crowd noise, a clinking of glasses, a smattering of applause—but Moodymann doesn’t put us among the revelers. We glimpse the festivities from behind glass as if the ballroom scene in The Shining showed us the best chitlin’-circuit party that never happened (or happened a long time ago, or is always happening). Moodymann’s the DJ in hell, condemned to haunt the decks forever until his brain spins as feverishly as his records.
While Moody’s often aimed for a suave sentimentality in the past, the music on Sinner paints a portrait of obsession, a hallucinatory and self-contradictory conversation he’s perpetually having with himself in that whispered rasp of his. The word “church” is repeated on three songs, like a nagging reminder in the sinner’s psyche, and on “I Got Werk (Live)” the word is answered by a woman’s voice singing “make your money, baby”. On “I’ll Provide” he mutters “a sister’s voice gonna take me to church”, blurring the lines between sex and religion in the same way as all the best soul music. After promising the world to his girl on that song, he suddenly turns: “I want everything.”
“Fight!”, he seems to command the warring halves of his brain on “Got Me Coming Back Rite Now”, and what sounds like the hum of some dread machine beneath that track reveals itself as a church choir, switching on and off like a nagging thought. This is a guilty-conscience album, a little like Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Histoire De Melody Nelson, except we don’t even hear the girl’s voice. “What do you want to listen to right now?” Moodymann pleads. “Do you want me to tie you down right here on the floor?” Crickets. Hell, there might not even be a girl in the room. The only friends that understand him are his records. On “I Think of Saturday”, a voice croons from the bottom of a bargain bin: “When you’re around, life doesn’t seem so bad.” Despondent, Moody responds: “Yet here I am.”
At first, Sinner might not sound much like Moodymann’s past work—too steely, too ramshackle, too skeptical of romance. This changes two minutes and 23 seconds into “If I Gave U My Love”, where he throws a pinch of dust and disappears behind a cloud of pendulous, filtered electric piano—a favorite trick of his. That leads us into “Downtown”, an eight-and-a-half-minute jazz jam that doesn’t express communal joy so much as sad knowledge. A voice seems to sing “we’re fine, we’re fine,” though we hardly believe that, and soon the singer’s assurance has devolved into vocalese: “yeah-yeah, ey-heyy”. We don’t know what to feel. Anyone descending into the depths of Sinner will have to get used to that sensation.