Some couples stood silently together thumbing on phones whereas others hovered over the same blue-lit screen sharing in the whatever with one another. Others murmured amongst themselves, chewing the cud before the evening’s entertainer was to appear; a nondescript middle-aged man described his upcoming business trip to a younger-looking partner (she expressed uneasiness about the fashion models he’d be working alongside) while a few heartbeats away another couple — possibly on a first date? — hashed out their social skills. She’s a phone talker; he’s not.
Uptown Oakland’s New Parish, a venue with a small stage in a tall room lined with indoor balconies to allow audience members to peer down on the performer below, was awash with coupled bodies collected to hear a man touring behind an album he crafted solely about his inability for romance.
Moses Sumney‘s Aromanticism is lush with dissipating orchestral arrangements and lonely guitar chords kept in time by minimalistic rhythm. His defining feature is his voice, armed with choral range and suited with a controlled rasp akin to a muted trumpeter. The only knock against him is his record barely squeaks past 37 minutes in length.
The Los Angeles singer-songwriter released his debut album last year to great acclaim, generated by three years of hype and guest spots on songs for the likes of Solange and Beck that grew his mythos. Sumney is almost like a tragic Greek actor: a singer of love who freely dazzles in song but is chained to his lonesomeness. As he wrote on Tumblr leading up to the album’s release: “Aromanticism is a concept album about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape. It seeks to interrogate the idea that romance is normative and necessary.”
These are love songs that contradict their very existence, and a swarm of lovers in Oakland was the latest to hear them on snugly spring night last Tuesday.
Although he worked with a bevy of producers and musicians to record the album, Sumney was accompanied on stage by a percussionist, a second guitarist and a keyboardist-slash-violinist. Sumney swaggered up the stage billowed in a black garment (a robe, an XXXL shirt?) that he later revealed was from the non-demographic clothing brand 69.
Sumney began with a tinkered version of the album opener “Don’t Bother Calling” where his vocals were prompted in the center. Utilizing a mic stand that held three individual microphones, Sumney seamlessly controlled this vocal trident to loop, blend and harmonize with himself in real time. During the song’s climax, he matched his sensual squeal with the violin’s high note ending with applause and shouts from an audience that began to collectively lean in to be closer to his glow.
Perhaps his finest achievement thus far, “Quarrel” includes his most intricately-laced instrumentation and an overall thesis: “We cannot be lovers, ’cause I am the other,” he crooned while twirling his voice to the direction of his hand that he waved like a choir conductor directing only himself. He riffed on the lyrical stanza in a bebop form that seemed to further Sumney from connecting with any other while closing the gap between him and self. It was gorgeous albeit sort of sad.
Sumney dedicated “Make Out in My Car” to anyone in the audience who had never been kissed (“What looks to be a lot of you,” he quipped) and explained how the gentle moments when lovers sit in a car before they do or don’t embrace was quintessentially Californian. Later, a cover of Björk’s “Come Back to Me” divulged in his trip-hop tendencies where his lathered vocals filled the openness between bass notes plucked off a violin.
Sumney addressed the crowd sparingly, but each comment was purposeful; he admitted to having no clue for what he was doing on stage with Sufjan Stevens during their Oscars performance last month and expressed an honest humility for the outpour of heckling admiration.
“I love everyone in this room,” he said before winding down with a dusted-off doing of his bygone track “San Fran” from 2014 (he took a few moments to summon forgotten guitar chords). But when an audience member shouted, “Tell us how much you love us!” Sumney seemed disillusioned. As though the spell had worn off and it was the thorny morning after. He batted down the request and instead chose to perform, perhaps his only method for connecting with this room full of lovers.