Upon announcing that Moogfest 2016 is going to take place in Durham rather than Asheville, where it’s been held since 2010, Moog put out a teaser compilation called Translational Drifts, featuring contemporary artists covering venerated synth composers. Dan Deacon takes on Brian Eno, Julianna Barwick does Suicide, YACHT covers a Devo track, ADULT covers Pet Shop Boys, and Moses Sumney, whose devastating set we caught earlier this year at FORM Arcosanti, does a total sword-in-the-stone move by covering Laurie Anderson’s haunting “O Superman”.
It’s a logical pairing. Anderson was at the forefront of pop culture cyborg feminism with her androgynous performance and self-sublimation into the electronic arms of synthesizers and vocoders. Sumney’s unbelievable voice could (and often does) route him along folk figure lines, and while that wouldn’t be wholly incorrect, the loops and synths integral to his performance, and his declared approach of being “as non-human as possible” are inherently cyborg.
As in the original, a percussive vocal loop and ambient synth swells form the background of the song, with the artist at the foreground singing and speaking into a vocoder. The original, inspired by the Iran hostage crisis, went in on American militarization via Anderson’s chilling deadpan: “here come the planes…they’re American planes. Made in America.” Sumney doesn’t go that in-depth on the lyrics, in part due to the titular drift that comes with translation, in part since his cover was improvised:
When I first heard Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” I had just fainted in public and was in the middle of coming to as it wafted down from the speakers above me and lifted me out of a blurry daze. For the Moogfest cover, I wanted to capture the state-of-being that enraptured me when I first heard it: hazy, fleeting, and skeptically hopeful. I figured the best way to do this would be to improvise the recording from memory. I recorded it live and one-take to cassette tape in my Los Angeles bedroom with my loop pedals and microphone.
Delivered from memory, crescendoing with looped vocals and handclaps, the song becomes an ask without an object, a mantra and a prayer.