Always listen to the end of a record. I cannot state that fact enough in the age of a la carte streaming, where every song becomes disentangled from its roots and cross-pollinates playlists faster than the winds of change can blow. Even the most confident of artists – and Moses Sumney has every reason to be confident – will leave their most radical experiments to the back end, as if to test the mettle of their listeners. It’s a reward worth the trek, as I’ve come to know from the glory years of CDs. Some of my favourite ever tunes are saved for last. It’s where Incubus decided to write a meditation ode with a Japanese orchestra and James Murphy penned a classic ballad about the ills of New York City. In the case of Moses Sumney’s 2016 EP, Lamentations, it’s where he decided to reveal a song that he’d written in Hebrew.
It’s hard to overstate how strange it is to hear a language you’d never associate with an American artist coming out of their mouths. According to Sumney, he wanted to created a reverential, religious sounding song and thought the 2000 year-old language was the best way to achieve it, so he set about learning it precisely for this purpose. I saw him perform this the other night in Church of all places, and it certainly had the effect he was searching for. Sumney has many of the musical qualities you’d look for in a cantor (and pretty much none you’d want in a spiritual leader), including the ability to traverse octaves with ease and a piercing falsetto that possesses the quality to root you to the floor. Combine that with a dialect I was brought up learning and it makes for a quite arresting piece of music.
Often clad in black and famously pictured submerged in what appears to be a lake of blood, Sumney is not someone whose lyrics typically lend themselves to explorations of the divine. But writing an alternative take on what could very easily pass as an actual prayer is about as punk rock as it gets in 2017. Rather than rely on the harmony of a choir, Sumney uses a loop pedal to record his own, which closely follow his melodies in what feels like a collection of ghosts. Accompanied by a harp (which, for all we know, he could have taught himself to play too), he conjures up tempestuous oceans and serene pools using only his voice. The Hebrew actually helps to focus attention on the unique quality of his tone; if you don’t understand what he’s saying, there’s nothing else to distract you. He’s one of the most innovative singers I’ve heard in forever, one that makes you feel bad for not gong to Synagogue at the same time as the rest of his music deals almost exclusively with humanity ending up in Hell.
There is beauty in the darkness after all.