As someone who has never been in a long-term relationship, Aromanticism gets under my skin in a way not a lot of albums do. Amid the tired chart hits about new love and true love, to have a voice, if not outright rejecting, at least affirming distance from the zeitgeist is refreshing. Our society is obsessed with partnership – if you’re not in a relationship there must be something wrong with you, right? Aromanticism isn’t an admonishment of this reality; rather, it’s the acceptance that these feelings of detachment might not ever go away, that maybe you’re supposed to be alone.
It’s not a light listen – not thematically anyway. Musically, however, Aromanticism is a dream. Sumney’s honeyed falsetto glides delicately over gentle guitar strumming and wistful keys, while synths fade in and out sparingly over the eleven tracks. The instrumentation could almost fool you into thinking it was sanguine if you weren’t paying attention to the lyrics. Yet it’s in the lyrical content where Sumney’s heart lays bare. ‘Doomed’ is an all-too relatable confessional, where gorgeous vocal melodies asks if he’s fundamentally broken, if he will “die for living numb”. Just shy of thirty-six minutes, the album might look short on paper, but it’s a personal epic.
Sumney isn’t painting himself as an asexual being here, but an aromantic one. It’s an important distinction. He sings with flirtatious confidence on ‘Make Out In My Car’, and recalls past lovers over gentle strumming on ‘Indulge Me’ but it all feels hollow; he’s painfully aware that he’s incapable of offering anything more than fleeting passion. “I know what it’s like to behold and not be held,” he laments on ‘Plastic’, a line that cuts through to the bleeding heart of Aromanticism: Sumney can superficially be in a relationship, but if he can’t be there, then what’s the point?
On ‘Quarrel’ he offers his weary perspective on a love affair, battling for power with a partner whom he does not see as equal. Layers of polyphonic melodies collide, before sharp synths pierce the back half of the track and it dissolves into a sedate piano solo. It’s important to stress that Aromanticism is not a mopey album, just as it’s not a mission statement of self-empowerment. It’s realistic. It’s the arguments you have with a lover. It’s realising that you’re unable to commit to a relationship. It’s the struggle to accept that fact. It’s fucking complicated.
Aromanticism is comfort music for those who can’t – or won’t – find it in the warm embrace of a partner. And, when the term for which the album is named isn’t even recognised by the word processor I’m using to write this review, that has to be enough. In his astute ‘prose poem essay’, which he released alongside the album, Sumney stated that he’s trying to get the word “out from over the squiggly red line”. That probably won’t happen anytime soon, but with thoughtful, stunning projects like this, maybe a few people will add it to their own dictionary.