Music video commentaries (9): Moses Sumney

Moses Sumney, Worth It (Allie Avital, 2016)

Moses Sumney is a musician from California, the child of parents who immigrated to the US from Ghana. He currently lives in North Carolina. He often sings in a falsetto, backed by sparse instrumentation. Here is a recent interview. His music is quite original, pretty much unlike anyone else; and the same can be said for his videos: the earlier ones are collaborations with Allie Avital, and his more recent ones are self-directed. Worth It is an early song that appeared on his 2016 EP Lamentations. As for the video, I will only repeat here what I previously published:

Worth It is a collaboration between musician Moses Sumney and film director Allie Avital, the first of four music videos that they have done together. Avital sets stark, minimal visuals against Sumney’s brooding, multitracked falsetto voice and sparse instrumentation (consisting here only of hand claps and finger snaps). The lyrics are depressive: Sumney tells a prospective lover that he isn’t good enough for them, and they should look elsewhere. The video has no setting; it is only a dark nonspace, giving us figures without ground.

Sumney, clothed in black, emerges out of the darkness. A series of wavering cuts brings him closer, until his face fills the screen. In alternate shots, his hand reaches out towards the camera. Finally we get a reverse shot, more tactile than visual: the naked back of another human body (the dancer Martha Nichols). Sumney’s index finger hesitantly taps and traces a line down between her shoulders. In response, Nichols writhes back and forth; we see her muscles undulate. At this point, the video is almost an abstract study of the beauty of black people’s skin tones.

Gradually Nichols’ movements modulate into a full-fledged dance. She keeps her back to the camera, but twists around in wider arcs, and bends her head and torso ever further back. We find that, disturbingly, she has no eyes: just smooth flesh sealed over where they should be. All this is conveyed discontinuously, with cuts between closeups and even more extreme closeups. Nichols’ motion contrasts with Sumney’s near-immobility, as the video cuts rapidly between them. Eventually, Sumney cradles Nichols’ body in his arms, in a kind of inverse Pieta.

After a few more jump cuts, during which Nichols continues to writhe and twitch, her body softens into passive immobility. The camera now tracks smoothly back, away from the two of them. This continues for a while even after the music ends, until a final fade to black. The song/video is intense, immersive, and intimate; yet also implosive and claustrophobic. Human contact is inescapable and overwhelming, yet also nonreciprocal and uncommunicative. This is a truth about bodies and feelings, but also about the media environment that both sustains and isolates them.

Moses Sumney, Lonely World (Allie Avital, 2017)

This song also appeared on the EP Lamentations, and was reprised on Sumney’s first album, from 2017, Aromanticism (a reference to the condition of somebody who does not feel the emotions of romantic love). Lonely World is song about, well. loneliness. It partly consists in Sumney singing the word “lonely” over and over. He also mentions “the sound of the void… the void speaks to you/ In ways nobody speaks to you.” The instrumentation is sparse at first; Sumney’s voice is accompanied only by a jangly guitar. But as the song proceeds, the instrumentation swells, getting louder and louder until nearly the end; the instruments finally drop out, and the last thing we hear is Sumney’s voice a capella, still singing “lonely, lonely, lonely.”

The video is shot in gorgeous black and white. We see a bleak landscape: hills covered in rocks, with sparse vegetation. Sumney walks over these hills. First we see him in the distance, just a silhouette. Later shots bring him closer. Finally his body is close to the camera, and the landscape behind him is blurry, out of focus. His sharp outline and his dark skin contrast beautifully with the fuzzy grayness of the hills and rocks. The camera turns slowly around him. Then we cut to a POV shot of clouds and sky; a smoke trail shows something falling to Earth. We go back to Sumney’s head, with the blurry landscape behind him. The next POV shot shows a rocky area at the ocean’s edge; a female figure (Sasha Lane) seems to be struggling in a tide pool. She turns out to be a mermaid; a closeup shows us that her lips are sewn together. Sumney comes to her, leans down, takes off his sunglasses, and gently breaks the sutures over her mouth. She spits out water. Next, we see Sumney carrying her, and finally gently putting her down on the sand. Through all this, the camera, mixing shots from varying distances, continues its slow circular movements. There’s a continuing emphasis on the contrast between Sumney’s dark skin, the mermaid’s somewhat lighter (but still non-white) skin, and the greys of the blurry landscape behind them.

At this point, we are at the 3-minute mark in the song; we have reached the extended coda, dominated by bass and percussion, with Sumney’s vocals — “lonely, lonely, lonely” — buried in the mix. Sumney and the mermaid start to touch one another’s faces and bodies, first tenderly, then more insistently, until they are either making love or violently fighting — or both; it is hard to tell which, or when the first changes into the second. They roll over one another, and we see their mouths wide open in screams, which could be either orgasmic or painful (but we do not actually hear the screams, only the music). The editing becomes faster, with quick cuts and unsteady handheld camera movements. Finally the mermaid picks up a rock, and quite deliberately smashes it into Sumney’s head. (We have a motionless shot, held for several seconds, of her hand holding the rock as she stares angrily; but the actual violence occurs in a blur of motion (it seems to happen twice, as far as I can tell; but we don’t actually see the moment of impact). This happens just when the music becomes most intense. and horns come in to join the bass and percussion. The mermaid drags Sumney, by his throat and by the arms, towards the water; he is not dead yet, but he turns his head and stares at her uncomprehendingly as she pulls him under the waves. The instrumentation cuts out, and all that is left of the song is Sumney’s last murmured “lonely, lonely, lonely.” The video cuts to a longer shot of the waves hitting the shore. When the music ends, it is replaced by the gentle sound of waves hitting the beach; this sound continues for a few more seconds as the image fades to black.

I don’t think this haunting video can be reduced to any fixed interpretation. It’s more a matter of shifting mood, than of any specific meaning that could be attached to the figure of the mermaid, for instance. Sumney is altogether alone; the mermaid is too, as she comes from a different world. Their moment of contact is both desperately needy and disturbingly violent. The sadness of being alone compels them to approach one another; the mermaid is in agony from her landing, and Sumney feels impelled to help her. But the shock of contact, or perhaps I should say of enforced intimacy, is literally unbearable for both of them. Merging and separation are both painful; vulnerability and violation go together.

Moses Sumney, Doomed (Allie Avital, 2017)

This is another achingly beautiful song about loneliness, from the album Aromanticism. Sumney sings, mostly in falsetto, accompanied only by sustained (and presumably synthesized) tones, droning mostly in a very low register. The lyrics are self-questioning ones about the meaning of not loving anyone: “Am I vital/ If my heart is idle?/ Am I doomed?” The video shows Sumney floating, submerged in a glass tank of water. The camera roams around the tank; usually we see Sumney’s face, arms, and upper torso, but sometimes we see him from other angles — including a striking moment when we see the soles of his feet pressed against the glass. The watery interior of the tank is illuminated with a soft and spooky blue glow. Outside the tank is blackness; at one point, the camera moves away from Sumney’s tank, through the darkness, to another tank nearby, in which a woman is similarly suspended. Then it comes back to Sumney. All this seems to be a single take, until 3:40 or so, when the image slowly fades, to be replaced by another one, that seems to be taken from above the circular tank, instead of roaming along its sides. The fade/replacement is barely perceptible, because the lighting (blue surrounded by black) remains the same across both shots. For the last forty seconds or so of the video, the camera pulls back, or upwards, so that we see both Sumney’s tank and that of the woman next to him; and then, as the camera continues pulling back, we see a whole array of circular tanks, each with one human being inside. Spheres of blue, surrounded by black. The people are in fact close to one another, but each of them is isolated, shut off, unable to reach beyond their own enclosure, or to communicate in any way with one another. This final image is gorgeous and heartbreaking.

Moses Sumney, Quarrel (Allie Avital & Moses Sumney, 2018)

Quarrel is another song from Aromanticism. It somewhat more lush and full in its instrumentation than any of the songs we have heard previously. The lyrics seem to be about the impossibility of communication among people who are not on equal footing. The person (a lover?) with whom he is at odds has “the privilege to ignore” their disagreement; but he doesn’t. “Don’t call it a lovers’ quarrel,” Sumney sings; “We cannot be lovers/ ‘Cause I am the other.”

The video is strange and oblique. It is set in the winter, with snow on the ground. It is wide screen. In some shots, the colors are muted; in others, a glow from the sun gives warmth to what remains a limited palette. After the establishing shots, from a distance and from up in the sky looking down on the ground, we see shots of Sumney and a horse. He cuddles and caresses the animal, as the camera circles swooningly around them. He stands in a barn facing the horse, and dances for it. The horse trots in slow motion in a circle aroudn him. In all these sequences, the camera placement and movement work to suggest some sort of romantic engagement between Sumney and the horse.

But then we see Sumney walking alone through the dark, and entering a building with a strange assemblage that seems to be made of the bodies of dead horses trussed up in a frame in some way. This is an actual sculpture, made in part from horse carcasses: No Life Lost II, by the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. There is an article analyzing the sculpture here, which suggests that this sculpture “is provocative precisely because of that tenderness: it forces us to look directly at abjection, at death, and to find beauty in it.”

Sumney takes out a small knife and seems to be working on it, as if he were the sculptor. The horse comes to the door, looks in and sees it. Sumney and the horse exchange glances; he stands in front of it, distressed, with his head bowed. The horse walks away; Sumney runs after it. As before, the editing and the exchange of glances imply an erotic relationship between Sumney and the horse: but here, a rupture and a disappointment. Sumney stands in the barn, looking abashed before the horse, who looks back in a reaction shot. At this point, the song proper ends, and the video fades to black.

But there is still more music: after a brief pause, we hear a two and a half minute instrumental coda. The camera, as at the start of the video, moves over the winter landscape from high in the sky. Then the video cuts to an odd tableau. Four horses stand in a circle around a kind of wooden trestle, from the middle of which Sumney hangs suspended, with a harness around his chest and shoulders. The camera spins slowly towards and away from the structure, cut together with closeups of body parts of the horses, as well as of Sumney’s face. Not only is his body a few inches off the ground, so that he swings slowly back and forth, but his arms have been replaced by horses’ legs, ending in hooves. The last shot of the video, lasting for a whole minute, starts at a point above Sumney’s body and the trestle, and then slowly ascends higher in the sky, and also circles slowly around, until the whole tableau, Sumney and horses, grows small from distance; we mostly see the figures’ shadows rather than the figures themselves. During this shot, the music is dominated by a piano, as the drums fade out. Finally, the music ends, and the shot fades to black.

Once again, there is no easy and unambiguous way to make sense of this video. It is beautiful and disturbing. Sumney’s previous videos and songs are about isolation and disconnection; this one seems to be on a similar theme, but it is changed by focusing on the interchange between a human being and a nonhuman animal (though horses have had a long relationship with us, for thousands of years). The video also asks us to question the relation between life and art; the sculpture is designed to express empathy, but it also objectifies the dead bodies of which it is composed. Does the last part of the video suggest an inversion, as Moses Sumney becomes a sculptural object for the horses?

Moses Sumney, Virile (Moses Sumney, 2019)

Virile is the first single from Sumney’s 2020 album grae (the reference is to the color gray, as in: neither black nor white). The song rejects the mainstream social conception of masculinity: “You wanna slip right in/ Amp up the masculine/ You’ve got the wrong idea, son.” He also sings of his awareness of mortality, which makes “virile” masculine postures ridiculous: “none/ Of this matters/ ‘Cause?I will return/ To dust and matter.”

As for the self-directed video, Sumney writes that it “takes place in a post-human world, the last remaining man is caught between Beauty and Brutality‚Äôs battle to dominate the earth and his body.” The overall look of the video isn’t as science-fictional as this description might imply; but it is definitely strange and alienating. The opening shot shows Sumney lying on the ground, amidst dried grass. The camera is way up in the sky, and the sound is indeterminate ambient noise; then the camera moves in on Sumney, while on the soundtrack we hear harps and a tinkling piano, and Sumney’s voice crying out wordlessly: “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…” After this, once Sumney starts actually singing, most of the video shows him dancing solo in what seems to be a meat locker. The lighting is indirect, and mostly coming from way back; there is also smoke in the air (or perhaps, given that this is a meat locker, it is evaporating dry ice). Giant slabs of beef hang on hooks. Other slabs are moved back and forth; Sumney enters between the slabs, hanging from above as they do. He jumps off the pull-up bar to which he had been clinging.

The sound thickens; guitar and drums come in after a while. Sumney engages in a furious dance. His chest and torso are bare; below them he wears loose black pants. His dark skin glistens. The camera is far enough away to show either his whole body, or his body from the waist up. His body pulses and writhes, as if he were both trying to free some energy trapped inside him, and yet also trying to bottle the energy up and prevent it from escaping. I would not quite say he is expressing anguish – his facial expression does not really convey this, though he looks tense and intent; but his whole body does seem to be taut and tightly wound up. Occasionally his back is to the camera; we see his shoulder muscles vibrating with tension, in a way that is reminiscent of Martha Nichols in Worth It.

When the song reaches the second verse — in which Sumney sarcastically sings, “To stake dominion over all that one surveys/ Is the virile, viral way” — he moves into another room. This room is set up like a religious chaper: there are rows of seats on both sides of a central aisle that leads to a kind of altar, swathed in red. Candles are burning on the altar, but to both sides of it there are giant slabs of meat hanging. Is this a site for the worship of meat-eating and masculine violence? The camera moves down the aisle towards the altar, as Sumney writhes in front of it. Then the camera moves back and away; there’s a sudden cut to a metallic wall lit in blue, against which Sumney is now dancing. We get extremely brief jump cuts back to the red room, though mostly we see Sumney against the wall in blue. These violent disjunctions of the image correspond to the musical ferocity of the second chorus, with raving guitar and heavy drums. Finally we get a shot of the entire blue room; it contains more meat, hanging from hooks and lying on a long work table. As the chorus continues — “you’ve got the wrong idea, son” — Sumney skips across the room in boxer’s pose, fists clenched as if he is going to punch out the meat. The camera follows him, in swift, jerky motions across frequent cuts. But then Sumney crouches before one of the slabs of meat, seeming to caress it. When he gets back up on his feet, his right hand and arm all the way to the elbow is covered with some blue, glittery substance. The camera backs out of the room, and as it does so, the room lighting changes from blue to red (like that of the “chapel”). The room has no door, but it is separated from the rest of the space by hanging plastic strips (such as are often used at the edge of a refrigerated area). The camera, looking through these strips, shows us the silhouette of Sumney dancing just behind them, still in the (now red) room. All this takes place during the song’s bridge with its accusation against masculine imperialism: “You want dominion to make minions of the stars,/ Made up of what you are…” The word “are” is repeated many times.

While the stream of “are”s continues, we cut from the meat locker to a long shot in which the camera rapidly moves over a landscape, mostly dry grass with a sparse sprinkling of trees. When the instruments suddenly drop out, so that for a moment we just hear Sumney’s voice once more reciting wordless “ah”s, there is a cut to an extreme closeup of meet, with beetles crawling over it. Then full instrumentation resumes, for the last reprise of the chorus; and we cut back to the outdoors. We see Sumney running along a path; we see, from high up in the sky, his running as the path turns in a loop. Then the camera, from somewhat closer in, circles around Sumney as he dances in place. The sky behind him is filled with an ominous, spiraling insect swarm (evidently CGI). There are a number of quick jump cuts as Sumney dances ever more frantically, and the swarm fills more and more of the sky. Just as the singing ends, and the music fades out, we cut to a shot of Sumney lying on the ground, breathing heavily as if exhausted. His breaths are very loud on the soundtrack. An enormous mass of beetles (like the ones on the meat earlier) are crawling all over his face and torso. The camera slowly moves closer and closer to his face, with the bugs in disgusting profusion. Then we get a cut to black, though the heavy breathing continues for a few more seconds.

As with so many of the videos we have looked at all semester, I do not think we can ‘translate’ it by giving a single symbolic meaning to each element. The video’s emotional power comes from the accretion of details, both in the music and in the visuals. Evidently Sumney is at war with conventional social ascriptions of the meaning of masculinity, which impose themselves both on his mind and on his body. If his dance enacts the conflict between Beauty and Brutality, it is because escaping from the latter involves so much struggle. We are continually reminded of death and carnivorous predation: we have taken life from the animals now reduced to slabs of meat, and this violence is almost our implicit religion, as the “patriarchs” seek to impose violent “dominion” (both of these words coming up at crucial moments in the song). It’s a struggle of life against death, or against the violent putting-to-death that characterizes hegemonic masculinity and virility. But life itself is finite; it can be exhausted, and it gives way to death, which in turn nourishes new life (like the beetles that consume inert flesh). All these ideas are expressed in the course of Sumney’s dancing and the video’s overall cinematography; though never in such form that they could be congealed in any cut-and-dried single statement. We are left, uncomfortably, with a high degree of ambivalence.

Moses Sumney, Cut Me (Moses Sumney, 2020)

This is Sumney’s latest video, also for a track from grae. I haven’t yet watched it often enough to have as developed a sense of it as I do for the earlier videos. The song is unusually bouncy and upbeat for Sumney in terms of sound. The instrumentation is more conventional than is the case for many of his songs, with a snappy bass line and horns and choruses reminiscent of soul music. Even Sumney’s voice sounds warmer and more relaxed than usual, though it still displays its awesome range. The lyrics seem to be about (both literal and more metaphorical) masochism; but even the words and rhyme scheme are more playful than is the case with many of his other meditations: “when my mind’s clouded/ And filled with doubt/ That’s when I?feel?the most alive/ Masochistic?kisses are how I thrive…. seemingly I need/ what cuts me, cuts me…”

The video is dance-based, and all the visuals are articulated with a clipped precision. But the video is also upbeat, even comedic, in a way that none of his earlier ones were. Sumney himself says of the video that it is “a satirization of the medical industrial complex, and a chuckle in the face of black death.” Sumney appears as a patient; we first see him wearing an oxygen mask. (Is this a nod to the current coronavirus crisis?) There are two other dancers in the video, Emara Jackson and Malachi Middleton, who appear as paramedics driving an emergency ambulance. They are dressed in reddish hospital gowns; Sumney first appears in one as well, but for the most part he wears his usual black. We see the three of them in a series of slightly absurd and surreal dance routines: alternately sitting up and lying down in hospital beds, for instance; or loping down a hospital corridor with Sumney in the center, his arms over the shoulders of the others who are supporting him. We also see tableaus of the three of them in their underwear, swaying softly as they lean back into one another, or all writhing slowly on the floor in what I can only describe as a pseudo-orgy. Then there are the shots of Sumney dancing or bowing on a stage, his body jerking as if pulled by puppet strings, while in the reverse shot the other two sit in an otherwise empty auditorium, holding up cards rating Sumney’s performance like gymnastics judges at the Olympics. And then there are the shots of one or the other of them dancing on top of a coffin. The video ends with Sumney riding on the roof of an ambulance (marked “Sumney County”) as if it were a horse. All in all, the video is quite beautiful; and it shows the same elegance and precision of Sumney’s other videos (whether directed by himself or by Allie Avital). But its light touch (echoing the upbeat lightness of the song, despite its potentially depressing subject matter) makes for a lovely contrast with Sumney’s other videos, and (dare I say it?) gives us a kind of hope that is more than welcome in this time of deadly pandemic.